Groups sue over early ballot return deadline, harm to rural & Latino voters

Arizona’s popular early voting system requires mail-in ballots arrive at the offices of election officials by 7 p.m. on Election Day for those votes to be tallied. But this deadline is unreasonable and disenfranchises rural and Latino voters, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by a Latino advocacy group and a progressive organization. 

The groups, Voto Latino and Priorities USA, argue the early ballot receipt deadline places undue burden on the right to vote of all Arizonans who vote by mail, but particularly on the state’s rural and Latino voters. The result – ballots that were cast and mailed by Election Day being rejected – is a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and disparately impacts Latino voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act, the groups argued in their lawsuit.

The lawsuit wants Arizona election officials to instead use the date ballots are postmarked as a standard, and to count ballots mailed by Election Day if they are received within five days.   

Voto Latino is a nonprofit that promotes civic engagement of Latinos nationwide and Priorities USA is a national voter engagement group that advances progressive causes. In their lawsuit, the organizations said they expect to spend thousands of dollars in mobilizing Arizona voters in 2020. 

In a press release, Maria Teresa Kumar, president of Voto Latino, said the early ballot receipt deadline is part of the state’s “voter disenfranchisement shenanigans.” 

“Creating artificial barriers towards the democratic participation of some diminishes the strength of our democracy as a whole. Attempts to silence the voice of the people, in whatever form it may take, must be struck down with the full force of the law,” Kumar said. “We look forward to joining forces with Priorities USA to end voter disenfranchisement shenanigans in Arizona. A thriving democracy ensures that all citizens’ vote is treated equally regardless of zip code.”

Sophia Solis, a spokeswoman for Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. 

The lawsuit asks the court to permanently prohibit the Secretary of State from rejecting ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and received within five days of Election Day.

Arizona already has a five-day period after the election ends to “cure” ballots – usually when signatures are inconsistent or other discrepancies are found.  

The advocacy groups argue that five-day cure period could also allow for mail-in ballots received after 7 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.  

Rural, minority voters disproportionately impacted by early ballot return deadline

Rural voters are more vulnerable to their ballots go uncounted based on receipt deadlines, the lawsuit argues, because mail delivery time is slower in those regions than in urban areas.  

According to the lawsuit, in 2018, approximately 1,535 ballots in Maricopa County were received after the return deadline. In Navajo County there were 3,062 late ballots and in Yuma County there were 6,227 rejected late ballots, the complaint states. Census figures show Navajo County’s population is 44% Native American and Yuma County is 64% Hispanic, while Maricopa County is 2% Native American and 31% Latino.  

In an email, Yuma County Recorder Robyn Stallworth Pouquette said the figures quoted in the lawsuit are “completely inaccurate.”

“Yuma County did not have over 6,000 rejected ballots,” Pouquette said. She said that while the office didn’t have the number of mail-in ballots received after the return deadline immediately available, she is “positive” the numbers shared in the lawsuit are not accurate.

The lawsuit argues voters who vote by mail, which numbered more than 1.5 million in 2018, have to abide by a mail-back window that is calculated arbitrarily. 

Election officials, political campaigns and voter engagement groups usually promote a five-to-seven-day window for voters to mail in their early ballots so those arrive at the recorder’s office by 7 p.m. on Election Day. 

But the lawsuit argues these calculations are guesses, and there’s no guarantee a ballot will arrive to the recorder’s office even if mailed several days in advance.

“Because of the challenges in estimating mail delivery times, elections officials – much less the average voter – cannot accurately predict when ballots must be mailed to ensure that they arrive by the Election Day Receipt Deadline,” the lawsuit states. 

Instead, the lawsuit says ballots postmarked by Election Day is a more reasonable standard and is consistent with how other state deadlines are enforced.  

“Taxes and other state-mandated deadlines are determined according to postmarks, not the date – much less the time of day – the mailed item is actually received,” the lawsuit states.

Additionally, if voters have to cast their ballot a week before Election Day, they are deprived from a period of civic engagement in the days leading up to the election, the complaint states. 

“Voters can and should remain open to new information until Election Day itself,” the complaint says.

The mail-in ballot return deadline is also unfair because rural and minority voters have “to cast their ballots before the rest of the electorate if they wish to be afforded the same process as other voters in the State and to have their votes counted.”

While voters with early ballots have the ability to return the ballot in person in the days prior to Election Day, this option is not available as readily available to minority voters due to disparities in income, education on electoral processes and access to transportation, the lawsuit states. 

“Minority voters are more likely to live in lower-income and tribal communities, many of which lack secure outgoing mailboxes, which makes it more difficult to return a mail ballot. The disparate lack of reliable access to transportation also makes minority voters less able to access a sometimes far-flung post office or outgoing mail box. And economic constraints often require minorities to work multiple jobs and shift-work, which often results in less flexibility to turn in a mail ballot by another means such as in-person at the county recorder’s office or a polling location,” the complaint says.

Update: This story was updated to include comments from Yuma County Recorder Robyn Stallworth Pouquette.

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.