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With weakened Voting Rights Act, some Arizona voters wait hours

Local officials in Arizona slashed the number of polling sites, causing long lines. The move might have been blocked by a full-strength Voting Rights Act.
People wait to vote in the U.S. presidential primary election outside a polling site in Glendale, Ariz. on March 22, 2016. (Photo by Nancy Wiechec/Reuters)
People wait to vote in the U.S. presidential primary election outside a polling site in Glendale, Ariz. on March 22, 2016.

Some voters in Arizona’s largest county waited five hours to vote Tuesday, after local election officials, looking to save money, slashed the number of polling places on offer.

The fiasco stems directly from the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that weakened the Voting Rights Act. It offers a warning sign as we approach the first presidential election in half a century without a full-strength VRA.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, called the long lines in Maricopa County “unacceptable,” adding: “Our election officials must evaluate what went wrong and how they make sure it doesn't happen again." An editorial in the Arizona Republic called the lines “shameful.”

Some voters in downtown Phoenix reportedly waited until after midnight to cast a ballot, after standing in line since before 7 p.m. A bipartisan presidential panel said in a 2014 report that voters shouldn’t have to wait more than half an hour.

"I literally went to multiple polling places, a total of FIVE separate times, only to find that the 1 hour wait (which I didn't have time for this morning) only increased as the day went on,” one would-be voter wrote to the Arizona Republic. “Eventually, I gave up at 6:40 p.m. when I saw the line at its longest, at least 2-3 hours. This was the first time in my life I genuinely felt disenfranchised."

The chaos was a result of Maricopa’s decision to cut the number of polling places from 200 in the 2012 primary to just 60 this time around, in order to save money. Compare that to Pima County, which offered 130 polling places for one quarter as many voters. 

Maricopa officials said they made the change because they’d received a higher number of requests for mail-in ballots, so they expected fewer in-person voters. 

Until the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that weakened the Voting Rights Act, Arizona and its local governments were required under the VRA’s Section 5 to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to their election rules. If the change might harm minority voters, it could be blocked. 

It was exactly these sorts of local changes, generally made under the radar and without fanfare, that Section 5 was designed to stop. Twice before, in 1980 and 1985, jurisdictions in Arizona were blocked from changing the number or location of polling places under Section 5, according to Justice Department records

Reports suggest the problems Tuesday were county-wide, and affected voters of all races. But Maricopa County’s population is 43 percent non-white or Hispanic, meaning it has a far higher share of minorities than the rest of the state.

Arizona is just the latest state whose primary has been marred by voting restrictions that might well have been blocked by the Voting Rights Act. North Carolina’s voter ID law and other rule changes kept a significant number of would-be voters from the polls, reports suggest. And ID laws in Texas, Alabama, and Virginia also appear to have had an impact.