Persistent unfounded claims of voter fraud. More than 100 legislative attempts to rewrite election laws to restrict voting access. And now, the Department of Justice is suing Arizona over a new Republican-backed law requiring proof of citizenship for presidential elections that was already struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

While the state of voting in Arizona remains a battle over discrimination, disenfranchisement and disinformation, it’s easy to overlook local efforts to make voting more accessible.

One sea change is coming to Pima County as it joins a growing statewide effort to make voting easier.

The county is moving to a “vote center” model which differs from traditional polling places in that voters are no longer restricted in using only the single location designated by their precinct.

Vote centers that accept ballots from any registered voter regardless of where they live in the county are now available in 12 Arizona counties, according to Pima County officials.

The idea is to “vote where it’s convenient,” said Pima County Elections Director Constance Hargrove.

Pima County voters can now choose to vote at any of the 129 vote centers. Voters in Maricopa County can choose from more than 200 centers.

Key Election Dates

  • July 6-29: In-person early voting
  • July 22: Last day to submit a request for a ballot-by-mail
  • July 26: Recommended last day to mail in ballot
  • Aug. 2: Primary Election

Voting-rights advocates are celebrating the wave of vote centers across Arizona as a resource to help avoid discounting ballots cast by voters in the wrong location, which happens hundreds of times every election cycle. 

The widespread effort is aimed at preventing the confusion voters experience when they don’t know where their designated precinct is and protecting voters who are outraged when their ballot isn’t counted because it was cast at the wrong polling site. But it does nothing to prevent the disenfranchisement DOJ officials say Arizonans will experience in presidential elections under the new state law. 

The DOJ announced July 5 that the Arizona law, set to take effect in January, requires an “onerous documentary proof of citizenship” in order to vote in certain national elections and violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

DOJ officials argue the law will prevent thousands of voters from registering, and is likely to disproportionately affect voters from communities of color who have experienced a long history of discrimination in Arizona elections that violates their voting rights.

Proof of citizenship makes it harder for voters of color and overseas service members to vote

In March, Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2492, which requires people who register to vote to provide additional proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or passport.

Currently, citizenship requirements for voting in a federal election entail a potential voter to swear — under penalty of perjury — that they are a citizen.

According to the Brennan Center, the kind of voting fraud that measures like the new Arizona law are ostensibly protecting against is exceedingly rare.

In one study of 23.5 million voters, there were 30 cases of suspected non-citizen voting, or 0.0001% of the total votes. At the same time, surveys also show that between 5% and 7% of all Americans lack the necessary citizenship proof, a passport or birth certificate. 

The burden of accessing government-issued documents required under the law would fall overwhelmingly on lower-income Americans, service members and civilians who are overseas, older people, students, immigrants, Latinos and Native Americans.

“The right to vote in this country is a fundamental one,” said Diana Varela, assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Arizona in comments July 5. “We should be making it easier, not more difficult for eligible voters, to exercise their right to vote.”

The sponsor of the new law seeking to revive proof of citizenship for voting, Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, crafted the bill with the support of the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation.

Hoffman drew national attention for forging a false declaration in 2020 claiming that he was one of Arizona’s 11 presidential electors, as he attempted a longshot and illegal bid to reverse the will of Arizona voters. Current Senate candidate Jim Lamon also signed, falsely presenting himself as a “duly elected and qualified elector.” Hoffman also sent a letter encouraging Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

A lawsuit brought by Campaign Legal Center, calls the requirement in the new voting law a “dual registration system,” alleging that the law “denies eligible Arizona voters the right to vote based solely on which type of voter registration form they use … and whether they have or can obtain paperwork that proves their current residence and U.S. citizenship status.”

The full text of the lawsuit filed on behalf of Living United for Change in Arizona, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Arizona Students’ Association, and the Arizona Democracy Resource Center is available here.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, currently running for U.S. Senate, seemed to welcome the DOJ lawsuit.

“I will see you in court. Again,” he wrote on Twitter.

Brnovich then claimed on his Twitter account Wednesday that the Biden administration wants to give recently arrived undocumented migrants the chance to vote.

Undocumented migrants are unable to vote and don’t have paperwork required to register.

Battles over voting

Voting in Arizona remains a battle. In many ways that’s not new, with federal oversight efforts to protect voters from discrimination and disenfranchisement dating back to the civil rights era. Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prevent discrimination in voting that was happening more in regions where racism was prevalent.

A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court Decision struck down a major section of the Voting Rights Act. Prior to that, Arizona was among the states with a history of racial discrimination and required to submit election changes for federal oversight and approval before enacting new voter laws.

Now, Arizona is permitted to make changes without federal oversight.

Voting-rights advocates argue that lawmakers and state elections officials have leveraged that freedom to return Arizona to an era when voters from historically marginalized communities faced discrimination in election laws and policies that violated their rights. Examples cited include the new Arizona law requiring proof of citizenship in presidential elections and cutting the number of polling places, a move that spurred long voter lines across Phoenix in 2016 and placed the state in the national spotlight for failing to protect people who wanted to cast a ballot.

Meanwhile, amidst claims that the new law is discriminatory and multiple lawsuits, as well as campaign season grandstanding, election officials in Pima County and across Arizona are working to make voting both easier and more secure.

That’s not easy work, however, as they face a Republican-controlled state legislature that has been adamant in restricting voting access. Just in this legislative session, from January until early July, more than 100 bills were proposed that would have changed or restricted voting access. 

“Almost all of those laws would have done real damage,” said Alex Gulotta, Arizona’s state director of All Voting is Local.

Two of the laws — HB 2492, for which the DOJ is suing the state, and House Bill 2243, passed in late June but not yet signed by the governor — effectively seek to bar potentially new voters from registering and remove eligible voters from voting rolls, respectively. The removal system built into HB 2243 would allow voters to get knocked off the registry “based on unreliable or incomplete information and no final chance for voters to verify their information,” according to All Voting is Local

“The laws are intended to attack immigrants, recently naturalized citizens, and people of color,” Gulotta said.

Pima County Elections Director Constance Hargrove speaks with a participant in the county’s mock voting event at Abrams Public Health Center on July 1, 2022. Credit: Michael McKisson, AZ Luminaria

Pima County adds vote centers, joining Arizona effort to ease election woes

Don’t worry about where — just vote. That’s the message Pima County has for its residents who have registered to cast a ballot in this year’s upcoming August primary and then November general election.

For the first time, Pima County is joining 11 other counties across the state, according to elections officials, including Maricopa, Yuma, Graham, Gila, Coconino and Cochise in using vote centers for the Aug. 2 primary election.

Vote centers mean registered voters are no longer assigned a single location, allowing voters to go to any of the locations most convenient to them: near their work, family, school, or where they happen to be on election day.

Pima County voters can now choose to vote at any of the more than 100 vote centers, while voters in Maricopa County can choose from more than 200.

The change is meant to make it easier, and also avoids discounting hundreds of ballots that are filed in the wrong location each election cycle. 

Pima County vote centers

  • Vote centers will be open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on August 2, Primary Election Day
  • You can request a ballot or drop off a mail-in ballot
  • Bring ID
  • Vote centers replace traditional precinct polling places. Choose a vote center using this map or this list, or see the sample ballot that arrived in your mail. 
  • Pima County’s website about vote centers
  • For more information on registering, or if there are any issues on voting day, go to Native Vote or contact Election Protection Arizona.

Maricopa County vote centers

  • Vote centers will be open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on August 2, Primary Election Day
  • Vote centers also have early ballot drop boxes, but Maricopa County voters also can use secure drop box-only sites.
  • Search for the nearest vote center here.
Marilyn Rigo checks in during a mock vote at the Abrams Public Health Center in Tucson, Ariz. on July 1, 2022. Rigo said she has been an election inspector for 16 years and wanted to test the new system out. She said she isn’t feeling comfortable with the system yet. Credit: Michael McKisson, AZ Luminaria

Streamlining voting

The way the new system works is that when a registered voter comes to a vote center, an election official checks them in on a tablet that prints off a ballot specific to their precinct. 

The official then records the fact that the person has voted, ensuring that they can’t vote again elsewhere. Previously, much of that work was done by checking the voter’s name against a paper logbook. The e-poll books, as the specialized tablets are called, are used by every other county in the state. 

Another problem vote centers hope to eliminate is issues with a specific precinct. If there are any technical problems at one vote center — the power cuts, or the line backs up — a voter can simply go to the next closest vote center and cast a ballot there. 

The vote center concept was first implemented in Colorado in the 1980s, and now 18 states use this model, according to Pima County. Pima County and Maricopa County are among the last counties in Arizona to start using vote centers, which were approved by the Arizona legislature in 2011. 

Maricopa County first used vote centers in 2017, after understaffed precinct polling places in 2016 led to long voting lines, with wait times extending up to five hours.

In 2020, Maricopa County expanded the use of vote centers for early voting and election days, said Megan Gilbertson, communications director at the Maricopa County Elections Department. 

The expansion became necessary during the pandemic, when some traditional polling places, like schools and senior living facilities, couldn’t safely allow more people onto their campuses. That meant elections officials had a hard time finding enough places for people to vote. Some host sites even canceled with the county after the elections department had already sent mailings telling people to vote at those locations.

With vote centers, the county could have fewer locations but more check-in stations to serve the same number of voters and still allow for social distancing, Gilbertson said. Maricopa County will have 212 vote centers open on primary election day.

“It does provide a lot more opportunity for voters to choose the location and the time that best works for them,” she added. 

George Harding drops his mock ballot into the ballot box during a mock vote at the Abrams Public Health Center on July 1, 2022. Credit: Michael McKisson, AZ Luminaria

Training for election workers

Training — for voters, county employees and poll workers — was needed for this year’s transition in Pima County.

The county elections department held two mock elections this summer, using a 2018 candidate list and a list of fictional voters with movie star names, to train staff on the use of the electronic voter rolls and the ballot printers.

George Harding, of Tucson, has been working as a precinct volunteer for more than 10 years and will be volunteering again this Primary Election Day.

Why does he spend his time as a poll worker? “Well, it wasn’t the money,” he jokes.

Poll workers work a long day, typically 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. on an election day, for about $150.

Harding said he’s interested in elections, wants to be of service, and enjoys talking with voters.

Usually he works at the “special situations table” at a precinct polling place, where he helps voters when they have a problem or need to vote using a provisional ballot.

Voting itself remains a key issue

The change to the system in Pima County comes amid repeatedly disproven allegations of voting scandals. 

Far-right Republican legislators in Arizona, along with die-hard defenders of former President Donald Trump, have dug in on unfounded claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Arizona is one of a few states that became flashpoints in a larger national effort, initially led by Trump and some of his closest advisors, and now embraced by a radical ring of election-deniers, to overturn the 2020 election. Multiple “audits,” and even audits of the audit, have consistently shown that there was no concerted or widespread fraud in Arizona. Even staunch supporters of the Republican party have dismissed the specious claims of wrongdoing.

And yet the issue remains critical in a number of both state and national elections.

Current state Attorney General Brnovich, despite being lambasted by Trump for not dismissing the will of Arizona’s voters, has made fraud allegations one of the key issues of his campaign for U.S. Senate. 

The Republican gubernatorial primary has also repeatedly focused on the conspiracy theory.

Frontrunner GOP candidate Kari Lake recently turned claims of fraud into a shibboleth, writing that not proclaiming the 2020 election to have been corrupt and stolen should be “disqualifying.”

Vote centers have no impact on the actual counting process. Casting the ballot and counting votes operate on separate systems. The tabulation system is not even connected to the internet. That separation is only one of the ways the technology used with the e-poll book system promises to be more secure. 

The e-poll books are designed not to have any ports in which an external device could be plugged in. They also rely on secure software that is used in 19 other states, including Texas and California.

A Pima County resident participates in a mock vote at the Abrams Public Health Center in Tucson Ariz., on July 1, 2022. The mock vote was designed to test the new vote center process and equipment, which replaces the older precinct voting system. Residents will be able to vote at any location in Pima County. Credit: Michael McKisson, AZ Luminaria

Voting Efficiency

Other benefits of the vote center model include:

  • Fewer polling locations needed. With more people voting early by mail and fewer people voting in person at polling places, consolidating locations saves time and money. In recent years, Pima County would sometimes need to open precinct polling places with a full staff for 14 hours just for a couple of voters, Hargrove said. An estimated 60,000 people in Pima County will vote in person on Aug. 2, about 10% of all registered voters in Pima County. As of April 2022, Pima County has 630,181 registered voters, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.  Gilbertson said that there are 2.47 million active voters in Maricopa County, with 1.9 million on the active early voting list. In 2020, Maricopa County saw 186,000 voters turn out to vote centers on election day. 
  • Fewer provisional ballots, and potentially faster election results. Most provisional ballots are given to voters who try to vote at the wrong polling place or try to vote in person after they received an early ballot in the mail. There were more than 18,000 provisional ballots cast in Pima County elections in 2018 and 2020. Those ballots are counted after election day and after all of the early ballots are verified and counted, adding to the time it takes to announce election results. The Pima County Recorder estimates the vote center model will reduce the number of provisional ballots by 80%. At a vote center, you might still need to vote a provisional ballot if you don’t bring ID or have outdated voter registration info.
  • More convenience for voters. Someone can still choose a vote center that’s close to home, but they could also choose a vote center that’s close to work, school, or child care.
  • Fewer rejected ballots. Arizona has a law that if you vote in the wrong place your vote can’t be counted. In Pima County in 2020, 656 votes were disqualified due to voting at the wrong polling place, Hargrove said. Similarly, 625 provisional ballots were not counted in Maricopa County in the 2018 primary election because the ballots were cast at the wrong place. But with the vote center model, any voter can cast a ballot at any location.
  • More use of technology and less paper waste. Instead of signing a paper register at the check-in table, voters will sign an electronic poll book on a tablet. And each voter’s ballot will be printed on site on demand.

One problem that’s not solved by the vote center model is the rise of “late early” ballots. This is when voters receive an early ballot by mail but either mail or drop off their ballot past the recommended date, which is July 26 for the August primary. If you miss that date, the Secretary of State’s Office recommends taking it to a ballot drop-off location or voting location in your county by 7:00 p.m. on Election Day, so that it’s received in time to count.

County elections departments still have to verify and count those ballots, sometimes spending days or weeks after election day, leaving the public in suspense as they wait for election results in close races.

Despite the concerted attacks on voting access coming out of the current legislature — attacks which target immigrants and people of color, Gulotta, of All Voting is Local, said there’s a “huge coalition of people trying to stop these things from happening. But, with more than a hundred proposed bills, bills are going to slip through that do a lot of damage.” 

“People should continue to get out and vote, and you should make sure that your family and friends get out and vote,” Gulotta stressed, especially as the proof of citizenship requirement doesn’t go into effect until January. “And you should also check your registration, make sure you’re still registered.”

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...

Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.