Voter registration extension curtailed in Arizona — Thursday is new deadline, court rules
A federal appeals court has cut off an extension of Arizona’s voter registration deadline, giving residents until Thursday to sign up to cast a ballot in the November election.
A lower court judge had extended the deadline last week from Oct. 5 to Oct. 23 after two advocacy groups, Mi Familia Vota and Arizona Coalition for Change, filed a lawsuit arguing that the coronavirus pandemic had stymied their plans to register new voters.
But state officials and Republicans asked an appeals court to stop the extension, arguing the sudden change has created administrative problems for election officials at the start of early voting and risks confusing voters.
A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, writing that the secretary of state showed the new deadline "has suddenly forced the county recorders in local election offices — some with limited staffs of only two or three people in rural counties — to process voter registrations while at the same time mailing and processing early ballots."
The court disagreed that the coronavirus pandemic and the public health restrictions that came along with it warranted more time for voters to register for the November election.
"Registration could be accomplished online or by mail, so in-person contact with potential registrants was unnecessary," the court said. "And the secretary and the governor took steps to mitigate the difficulties. For example, Governor Ducey’s stay-at-home order expressly exempted constitutionally protected speech activities such as voter registration efforts."
The groups that filed the lawsuit argued that the voters they often seek to reach do not have access to the internet or need assistance to register.
In extending the voter registration deadline, U.S. District Court Judge Steven P. Logan wrote that "registering to vote has never been easier for some, though others are not so fortunate."
Still, two of three judges who ruled on the appeal — William Fletcher and Marsha Berzon — agreed that voters who have registered after the initial deadline on Oct. 5 should get to cast a ballot in the November election.
But the third judge in the case, Jay Bybee, disagreed, writing that those voters should not be allowed to vote in this election because they registered after the deadline that is set in state law.
“They are not eligible to vote in this election, and adding thousands of ineligible voters to the rolls compromises Arizona’s election. I would require the Secretary of State to enforce Arizona law,” Bybee wrote.
The Maricopa County Recorder’s Office said Monday that more than 7,700 voters had registered since the initial deadline was extended.
But the appeals court may not have the last word.
While Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs had asked the court to provide a grace period for voters, lawyers for Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich had not agreed to that point in court filings or hearings, nor had the Republican National Committee or the Republican National Senatorial Committee, which challenged the deadline extension in court.
They could still challenge the appeals court's decision.
One of the organizations that pushed for a change in the Oct. 5 deadline said in a statement late Tuesday that it was disappointed by the court’s decision but was still proud to have won what now amounts to a 10-day extension.
“As a result of this victory for our democracy, tens of thousands of more voters in Arizona will be able to participate in the upcoming November election,” said Arizona Coalition for Change.
Hobbs encouraged voters to register immediately rather than wait until the deadline.
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"The judges' recent ruling gives election officials time to ensure that we conduct a safe, secure and accurate election. It allows voters to take action by giving them time to register for the general election, which is already underway," she said in a statement.
The Attorney General’s Office criticized Hobbs’ handling of the case.
While the secretary of state, a Democrat, initially opposed moving the voter registration deadline, she did not appeal Logan’s decision. The attorney general, a Republican, took up the case instead. But when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals asked Hobbs to weigh in as the secretary, she announced she would appeal after all and her lawyers said Tuesday they had reached an agreement with the advocacy groups on moving the voter registration deadline to Friday, which the court ultimately rejected.
“As a trusted election official, the secretary must be unwavering in her defense of the laws she took an oath to administer and defend,” said Ryan Anderson, of the Attorney General’s Office. “Let’s hope the secretary gets it right as we move closer to Election Day. Our democracy depends on it.”