A year ago, Arizona provided one of the earliest signals that Republicans planned to launch a nationwide attack on voting rights and the American election system: It was there, in the state that handed former President Donald Trump his narrowest defeat in the 2020 election, that voting rights activists first sounded the alarms about a “five-alarm fire” that would soon engulf nearly every other state with a Republican-controlled legislature.
They were right then, and now the alarms are ringing again. Republican lawmakers there have already introduced at least 20 bills that seek to roll back voting rights by targeting mail-in ballot programs, or that otherwise seek to turn GOP conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and widespread voter fraud into state law.
In a bizarre, if not totally unexpected, twist, their crusade received a boost last week from the state’s most prominent Democrat: Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to join 50 Republicans (and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia) to effectively kill a sweeping package of federal voting rights and democracy reforms in the U.S. Senate has paved the way for yet another Republican onslaught against the most basic tenets of democracy.
The failure of the bill, and Sinema’s direct role in derailing a legislative push that might have thwarted many of the GOP’s new laws, has left Arizona Democrats both smarting at one of their own, and fearful that Republicans will only take even more aggressive action to curtail voting rights and exert more partisan control over elections in its wake.
“Disappointment is not strong enough of a word — I was disgusted by it,” Arizona state Sen. Martín Quezada, a Phoenix-area Democrat, said of Sinema’s vote. “Opportunities to actually make substantial change and to really change the status quo for the better ... are so few and far between. And if you don’t embrace those opportunities and take advantage of that while you can, you could blow it for a generation of people that you serve.”
“The floodgates were already open, but now [Republicans] are empowered,” he said. “They know that there isn’t a political will to stop them. I would expect that their efforts are going to get more aggressive and more outrageous.”
Any new assaults will just build upon last year’s dedicated efforts to restrict voting rights. Republican lawmakers, fueled by lies that the 2020 election was stolen thanks to widespread voter fraud and other nefarious practices that didn’t actually occur, approved 34 laws curbing voting rights in 19 separate states last year.
Arizona Republicans were among the most aggressive, passing three bills that placed new restrictions on absentee voting or made it easier to purge voters from the state’s permanent early voting and broader registration lists. The Arizona state Senate GOP also authorized a conspiratorial “audit” of election results in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, that found no evidence of fraud but nevertheless instilled in Republicans — and the party’s conservative base — that it had occurred in Arizona and elsewhere.
This year, Arizona lawmakers have proposed bills that would largely eliminate the use of ballot drop boxes, place new restrictions on the use of absentee ballots, and end the practice of conducting local elections entirely via mail-in ballot, which some Arizona localities to do save money and make voting easier during low-turnout contests. They have filed legislation that would create new criminal penalties related to ballot collection and handling, establish a statewide office to investigate voter fraud, and force election officials to hand-count ballots.
In the eyes of many Democrats, Sinema bears at least some responsibility for the coming deluge. The Arizona senator last week voted in favor of the Freedom To Vote-John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, Democrats’ federal voting rights and democracy reform legislation that would have preempted many of the GOP’s new restrictive laws. But she refused to join 48 other Democrats to reform the Senate filibuster rule, which has blocked the legislation from becoming law.
The package, a Democratic priority nearly a decade in the making, would have established national voting rights standards and reestablished key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that have been gutted by conservative Supreme Court majorities. There has been widespread fallout from the disappearance of those provisions, including a case decided last year that allowed Arizona to keep in place voting restrictions that will make it far more difficult for the state’s large Native American population to cast ballots.
The legislation would have thwarted GOP efforts to curtail voting rights, limited other Republican-backed efforts to potentially subvert future elections, and proved that national Democrats would not remain on the sidelines while Republicans waged an all-out assault on the country’s electoral system.
Sinema’s rigid refusal to reform the filibuster, a move that would’ve allowed Senate Democrats to pass the legislation with a simple majority, has cratered her popularity in Arizona, where a poll last week found that just 8% of Democratic voters approve of her job performance. Arizona Democrats formally censured Sinema on Saturday, and she seems increasingly likely to face a primary challenge in 2024. The state’s other Democratic senator, Mark Kelly, is already fundraising off of his vote for the filibuster change ahead of a reelection campaign this fall.
“She cares more about her political future than the power of the people to actually vote for who they want,” U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D), who is openly considering a primary battle against Sinema, told HuffPost after the vote. “And if that means that she’s going to allow some Arizona voters to be disenfranchised, as long as it gets her crossover with Republicans, she’s willing to do that.”
More importantly, Gallego said, Sinema’s refusal to back the filibuster changes has left Arizona’s large Native American and Latino populations, which will face the brunt of the GOP’s prior efforts to limit voting rights, susceptible to further attacks.
“That’s the thing that I think makes a lot of us mad,” Gallego said. “It’s not just me. It makes a lot of us mad because we know the danger, we know what the Republicans are trying to do, and we know who they’re trying to target: It’s working-class Latinos, working-class people in general, and Native Americans ― some of the most vulnerable people in the state.”
Arizona’s Native American tribes, which helped drive Democrats’ success in the state in 2018 and 2020 elections, are particularly vulnerable to the Arizona GOP’s attempts to curb voting rights. The Supreme Court’s decision last year to uphold previously enacted restrictions on third-party ballot collection, along with the GOP’s other efforts to limit absentee voting, were already likely to hit tribal communities the hardest, thanks to their reliance on alternative voting methods because of their remote nature.
Any new restrictions on absentee voting, early voting and other methods will likely have a similar effect, tribal members say.
“Within the reservation, we have a lot of very remote communities,” said Allie Young, a voting rights activist and member of the Navajo Nation. “It’s already very difficult to get to the polls for our Native peoples, so these restrictions are certainly going to take away our right to vote.”
Other GOP proposals don’t necessarily go directly after voting rights. But they are rooted in the same conspiracies that drove the Cyber Ninjas “audit” that drew widespread condemnation from election observers last year, and could threaten both the integrity of Arizona’s elections and further erode voters’ confidence in them.
The proposal to require hand counts of ballots, for instance, is based on false GOP claims that voting machines switched valid votes from Trump to President Joe Biden in 2020. But as the Arizona Republic noted, studies have found that hand counts are more likely to introduce errors into vote counts than electronic machines.
Voting rights advocates have also warned that placing or strengthening criminal penalties on ballot collection and other practices is likely to have a chilling effect on organizations that seek to help voters cast ballots. And the effort to establish a state voter fraud investigative body will likely erode confidence in elections, rather than bolster it, by further parroting the idea that fraud is a major problem.
Routine audits found no evidence of widespread fraud, and even dedicated efforts to proving it exists have found little to substantiate claims: There was only one instance of criminal voter fraud in Arizona’s 2020 election, according to a database maintained by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank that often pushes the idea that voter fraud is a significant risk to American elections.
The Cyber Ninjas “audit” similarly found no evidence of fraud, despite being explicitly designed to do so. It determined that Biden was the legitimate winner of the state’s election even considering the supposed irregularities the auditors claimed to find, all of which were dismissed by nonpartisan election experts as either blatant conspiracies or total misunderstanding of the state’s election laws and practices.
But the start of the 2022 legislative session in Arizona has confirmed that Republicans planned to use the audit as pretense to wage broader assaults on voting rights and elections.
“That was the intent of the audit all along,” Quezada said. “They knew that the audit wasn’t going to produce any evidence, but the intent behind it was to produce fake evidence and produce fake rationale for pushing this legislation.”
Republicans in other states are already following the path Arizona plotted a year ago: GOP lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have spent months seeking to perform similar “audits,” while calls for “forensic audits” of the sort Cyber Ninjas carried out are now standard campaign fare among conservatives seeking elected positions throughout the country.
Nationwide, Republican legislators have also already pre-filed at least 13 bills to further erode voting rights, while another 158 bills will carry over from 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. And experts widely expect the number of bills targeting voting rights and elections to skyrocket as legislatures open their 2022 legislative sessions in the coming months.
Without federal legislation, Democrats and voting rights advocates will have no choice but to fight these battles on a state-by-state basis, in legislatures that are often hostile terrain. Democrats successfully expanded voting rights in nearly every legislature they controlled last year, but elsewhere, they will have to wait until November to try to win back majorities, which they could do in Arizona by flipping a single seat in each of the state House or Senate.
“We must defend democracy where it’s being attacked ― in the states,” said Simone Leiro, a spokeswoman for the States Project, a progressive group that focuses on state legislative races. “This is possible: In Arizona, just one seat in either the House or the Senate would end the radical right’s unchecked power. Now more than ever, if we want real action, we must focus on winning state chambers.”
But that won’t be easy. Arizona Republicans successfully used the state’s independent redistricting commission to draw legislative maps that favor the GOP and could protect the Republican majorities not just this year but throughout the next decade. More traditional forms of gerrymandering will likely safeguard GOP majorities in other key states.
And in Arizona and elsewhere, victories later this year for more radical Republican election skeptics who are seeking secretary of state roles and other key positions would only further intensify the party’s efforts to undermine democracy in the future.
“It is a dangerous situation,” Gallego said. “And it’s not a dangerous situation for Democrats. It’s a dangerous situation for democracy.”