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PHOENIX – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Arizona filed a motion in a Washington, D.C. federal court today to intervene in the state of Arizona’s challenge to the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). The ACLU argues that Section 5 of the Act, which since 1965 has protected racial and language minorities’ access to voting, must remain in place.
“Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is critical for ensuring that states do not pass election laws that negatively affect minority voters,” said Katie O'Connor, staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “We are intervening in this case to make sure that this critical piece of legislation is upheld, so that everyone's fundamental right to vote is protected.”
On Aug. 25, Arizona became the first state to challenge this section of the VRA since it was reauthorized in 2006. In Arizona v. Holder, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne claims that during the 2006 reauthorization of the law, Congress did not provide evidence of continuing discrimination in Arizona and that Section 5 imposes a severe burden on the state.
“This latest move by Tom Horne to bail out of the VRA is part of a nationwide effort to rob people of color of their voice at the ballot box,” said Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. “Considering he is leading efforts to defend SB1070 and the Mexican-American studies ban – two laws that scapegoat U.S. citizens of Latino descent – it’s shameful and disingenuous for him to say that discrimination in Arizona doesn’t exist.”
Because of Arizona’s long history of implementing procedures that have had a discriminatory impact on voters, especially Latino voters and those with limited English proficiency, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires the state to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementing any new voting practices or procedures that could negatively impact or dilute their future votes.
“The ongoing attempts to politicize the re-districting process by the Arizona legislative and executive branches in total disregard of voters’ choice of an independent commission demonstrate the fragile state of the fundamental right to an effective vote for all Arizonans,” added Daniel Pochoda, Legal Director of the ACLU Foundation of Arizona.
The ACLU filed the motion to intervene on behalf of seven voters who live in Arizona. They are: Latino voter and immigrant rights activist Luis Avila, who currently serves as President of the Somos America Coalition, Napoleon Pisaño, a Latino activist from Mesa who worked for the Maricopa County Juvenile Court Center, and Eric Mante, a Filipino American voter who attends Arizona State University; African American voters Dionne Thomas, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries at Progressive Baptist Church in Mesa, Calvin Goode, who served over a period of 22 years on the Phoenix City Council, and Melvin Hannah, former Director of Community Outreach and Job Development of the Greater Phoenix Urban League; and Japanese American voter Kathryn Nakagawa, a board member of the Japanese American Citizens League.
“Civic engagement in Arizona, especially among Latinos, is now more important than ever,” said Luis Avila, 29, who became a citizen in 2009. “We can’t just sit on the sidelines and ignore discriminatory attempts to make it harder for Americans to cast votes. We need to do everything we can to ensure that everyone has access to the polls and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act plays an important role in making that happen.”
The ACLU is arguing the state has a long and persistent history of implementing measures that have a discriminatory impact on voters. For example, despite the absence of significant fraud, Prop 200 dramatically altered Arizona election law by requiring citizens to present documentary proof of citizenship in order to register to vote, and by imposing a restrictive identification requirement as a condition of casting a ballot at the polls. The law, passed in 2004, made it increasingly difficult for voting-age citizens, particularly elderly Native American voters, to register or vote because of lack of requisite documentation, including birth certificates and other federal or state forms of identification. More than 30,000 voter-registration applications in Arizona have been rejected as a result of the law’s onerous identification requirements. A portion of the law relating to registration requirements was struck down in 2010.
More recently, the Arizona Senate passed SB1409, a measure that requires all documents issued by any Arizona agency or political subdivision to be written in English. Although the bill created an exemption for official ballots, there are lingering questions about its potential impact on minority voters because all non-ballot voting materials must be printed in English. This could include important voting guidance and instructions, and summaries of ballot initiatives and referenda. The bill was held in the House of Representatives.
There are currently two other cases filed by sub-jurisdictions in the DC District Court challenging the constitutionality of Section 5: LaRoque v. Holder, filed by residents of Kinston, North Carolina, and Shelby County v. Holder, filed on behalf of Shelby County, Alabama. On September 21, a district court judge issued a 151-page opinion in the Shelby County case upholding Section 5’s constitutionality. That decision has been appealed. A lower court decision is still pending in the North Carolina case on the constitutionality of Section 5. The ACLU represents voter minorities in these challenges.
Attorneys on the case include O'Connor and Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, Pochoda of the ACLU Foundation of Arizona, and Art Spitzer with the ACLU of the Nation's Capital.
Click here to read the ACLU’s response to the lawsuit filed by the state of Arizona.
Click here to read the state’s complaint in the case, State of Arizona v. Holder, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
For more information about the individuals who are serving as interveners, click here.
More information on the work of the ACLU Voting Rights Project is available at: www.aclu.org/voting-rights