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“I was one of those people who kind of lived in my own bubble,” Kara Janssen, a Smart Justice Organizer at American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, says. “I was one of those people who thought their vote didn’t matter. And now,” she says, pausing for a moment, “now I’m so mad at myself.”

Kara got into trouble for various drug offenses when she was younger. “I went to jail a lot of times,” she says. She ended up with two felony convictions. 

Her last conviction came with a sentence of more than three years, plus another consequence: getting booted off the voting roles.

Arizona is the state with some of the strictest felony disenfranchisement laws in the country, having stripped hundreds of thousands of people of their right to vote.

More than 221,000 people who have been convicted of felonies are barred from voting in the state, according to ACLU statistics. Only 20% of those disenfranchised people are currently in prison. The rest have fully completed their sentences, served the time, paid their debt, and yet remain unable to vote.

Kara Janssen, the Smart Justice Organizer at ACLU Arizona, says. “I was one of those people who thought their vote didn’t matter. And now,” she says, pausing for a moment, “now I’m so mad at myself.” Credit: Courtesy of Kara Janssen

Though she is unable to vote herself, Kara has been leaning into her personal experience to try to push people who feel as she used to — that voting doesn’t matter — to the polls. She’s been holding events in Maricopa County to get out the vote, telling her story and convincing people with information about what’s on the line. 

“There were just so many things that I didn’t know,” Kara says, thinking of her younger self. “And now that I know that if we do come together as a community and use our voices, it will matter, and it does matter.”

Millions of Americans are poised to cast their ballots again this November, on the heels of one of the most widely contentious elections in recent American history. Millions of Americans also won’t cast their ballot this November — because they are too young, are barred from voting, are disinterested, or deliberately don’t vote. 

These are some of the people that author and anti-racist activist Ibram X. Kendi called the “other swing voters,” in that they aren’t swinging between red or blue, but between voting and not-voting. 

Joe Garcia, executive director of Sí Se Vota, Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund, distills the message that: “Voters don’t decide elections. Non-voters decide elections.” 

There’s a danger that the pool of “other swing voters” — non-voters — may expand. Some voting advocates say that threat to democracy comes, in part, from officials and candidates, including gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who are falsely claiming that elections in Arizona, and elsewhere, are neither clean nor fair. Such claims, including legislation to further suppress voting access, may ironically produce the very problem they’re meant to solve.

That’s just the first paradox about voting in Arizona: claiming elections are not fair has resulted in legislation that keeps even more people away from the polls.

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At the same time that the state is expanding vote centers, meant to make it easier to cast a ballot, as well as increasingly relying on mail-in and early voting, the Arizona state legislature attempted, with over 100 proposed bills just this year, to further restrict voting access.

“People don’t cast a ballot for many, many reasons,” Garcia said. “We’re trying to get more people to vote. Period.”

That fact has inspired him to lead an unprecedented effort in Arizona to door-knock, send mailers, and make calls to get people to the polls. His focus is on Latinos who are traditionally underrepresented at the polls compared to other eligible voters.

These starkly contrasting efforts primarily target eligible, registered and willing voters. But there are other Arizona residents who are either unable or uninterested in voting.

These include people like Kara who have been convicted of felonies and have been disenfranchised, minors, the politically apathetic, as well as people who don’t see the purpose of voting, or decide not to vote in protest of the political system. Historically, marginalized groups have also long struggled to cast a ballot, either because they aren’t able to take time off of work to make it to the polls, don’t have the necessary transportation, don’t have a regular address, or are discriminated against.

Indigenous, Latino and Black Arizonans have a lengthy history of challenging government efforts to keep them away from the polls. 

As the 2022 general election approaches, we take a look at some of those disinclined and disenfranchised voters.

The politics of voting

Around 7.2 million people live in Arizona, which includes about 4.3 million registered voters. In 2020, almost 80% of registered voters cast a ballot.

That still leaves about 2 million voting age residents in the state who did not vote. 

The majority of Arizona voters, more than 55%, were over 45 years old, with more than 81% of all voters being White. According to the 2020 census, only slightly more than 60% of the state is White, which means that minorities disproportionately stay away from the polls. That skewed turnout affects who is elected, as minority voters tend to pull the lever for minority candidates.

Nationally, in 2016, the Knight Foundation counted 100 million eligible people who didn’t cast a ballot in that year’s general election. The next general election, in 2020, saw the highest voter turnout in a century, but subsequent unfounded allegations of fraud have left many worried that 2022 and 2024 will revert back to lower turnout rates.

“We know exactly why the voter turnout is low. We know exactly how to fix it and have known how to fix it for many, many years,” says Scot Schraufnagel, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University who has studied elections and ballot access for three decades.

Why voter turnout is low:

  • People don’t think their vote matters
  • Elections are non-competitive and seem pre-determined
  • Registration requirements, such as deadlines and voter ID laws 
  • Uninspiring candidates
  • Restrictions on how, where, when you can vote

How to fix it:

  • Same-day voting registration
  • Inspiring candidates, competitive races
  • Easy to register (same day or automatic registration)
  • Easy to vote (mail-in ballots, vote centers)

The reason we are not fixing it is the same reason Arizona legislators have been desperately trying to pass bills to further limit voting access, say voting-rights advocates.

Politicians got into power with lower voter turnouts, Schraufnagel says. So if we increased voter turnout, “we might have turnover of some of our incumbent politicians, and they’re not interested in that possibility,” he said.

Though currently it’s mostly the Republican Party pushing for voting restrictions, as well as undermining election security, “there’s no evidence whatsoever that easy voting creates a Democratic Party advantage,” according to Schraufnagel.

But what besides trepidatious politicians seeking to maintain their grip on power is keeping people from the polls?

“Voting itself is sort of irrational,” Schraufnagel said. It doesn’t make sense for people to vote because it takes time, energy, hassle.

You have to find your polling place, take off of work, or, if you’re doing early/mail-in, plan ahead. Plus, despite local and national elections consistently won by the margins, some people still believe that the likelihood that your single vote is going to make any difference is exceedingly miniscule. 

“A rational person doing the calculation says why, why bother?” Schraufnagel said.

Still, states can make what many see as a civic duty easier or harder. Arizona tends to make it harder, ranking 30th in an index tracking the ease of voting, last updated in 2020. Oregon, Washington, Utah, Illinois, and Maryland are the top five states that make it easiest to vote.

According to research, non-voters are typically younger, poorer, less educated, and non-white.

Most get-out-the-vote campaigns targeted at these demographics are partisan, trying to pull new voters into either Republican or Democratic camps. Not since the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 has there been a federal, non-partisan and concerted effort to get more people to vote. The 1993 act simplified voter registration. It forced states to accept federal registration forms, aiming to make it harder for people to be kicked off of voting rolls. 

The law focused on addressing “discriminatory and unfair registration laws and procedures” that disproportionately decreased voting in various groups of citizens, including racial minorities.

But state officials have or are trying to erect a series of other hurdles to block the vote. One such impediment is House Bill 2492, which would basically undo the principal provision in the National Voter Registration Act, requiring voters to prove their citizenship before voting.

It may sound reasonable or harmless, but there are many Arizona residents, typically poorer and more rural, who don’t have the required documents, including Indigenous voters who have sued to ensure their right to vote.

The Justice Department is suing the state to block HB 2492, set to take effect in January.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Department’s Civil Rights Division called the law “a textbook violation of the National Voter Registration Act,” adding that it “turns the clock back on progress” for voting rights. 

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich shot back in his own letter, telling the DOJ that it was “curious” the department “would use its resources to challenge a common sense law in Arizona designed to guard against non-citizen voting.” Multiple studies have shown, however, that non-citizen voting is exceedingly rare and has had no substantive effect on election outcomes. 

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Another regulation that has come under fire is Arizona’s delayed registration. Schraufnagel called Arizona’s 29-day deadline, which prohibits people from registering within 29 days of an election, “foolish.”

Many other states have done away with the deadline altogether, and have same-day registration, where you can show up to the polls or a vote center, register, and then cast your ballot all in one stop.

All of the states neighboring Arizona currently have automatic registration.

“The irony with Arizona is that it was the first state to adopt online voter registration way back in 2004,” Schraufnagel says. “And so it was the leader in one element of voter registration, but it still hangs on to this arcane registration deadline, which really serves no purpose other than to confuse people and create a bigger burden to voting.”

Another aspect that could start bringing more people to the voting booths is competitiveness. Minnesota, a reliably purple state, is both competitive and an easy state to vote in, giving it one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country.

Arizona is also competitive, but is increasingly making it harder to vote. There is a lot that Arizona could do to reverse that trend. (The state Supreme Court recently discarded hundreds of thousands of signatures that were meant to put an election reform proposition, which included same-day registration and safeguards against overturning election results, on the November ballot.) But that still doesn’t mean that everyone will cast a ballot.

Some people simply don’t want to vote, and some reasons behind that are tied to a history of making it harder, not easier to vote in a nation that romanticizes mantras like, “your vote is your voice and one person, one vote.

Arizona is among the states that had to get federal approval for all voting changes due to a history of racial discrimination against voters. That changed in 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court eased restrictions. Prior to that, the Voting Rights Act had required 15 states with histories of racial discrimination, including Arizona, to seek clearance for voting policies to ensure any changes didn’t create racial disparities for voters.

Arlette Moreno, center, registers to vote at a registration table hosted by Mission for Arizona, an Arizona Democratic Party organization on the University of Arizona campus, Sept. 6, 2022. Representatives for the group said they would be on campus every day until Election Day. Credit: Michael McKisson

The young and undecided

Besides the deliberate non-voters, there are also the unsure, undecided, or apathetic.

In conducting more than a dozen interviews on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, most of the students who were not planning to vote in the upcoming midterms didn’t have a ready explanation as to why.

Isaiah Black, a freshman from Colorado, says, “I don’t really think about it.” Another freshman, from New Jersey, says, “I’m only 18.” When reminded that 18 is the voting age, he shrugged, “I don’t really know. I just don’t…”

Emma, a sophomore from Indiana, isn’t registered in any state and says, “I like the excuse of not being registered when people on the street want me to sign something.” She added, “I don’t know enough.”

Xavier Urias registers to vote at the University of Arizona on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. The table was hosted by Mission for Arizona, a Democratic Party of Arizona organization. Credit: Michael McKisson

Daiana Morales, an 18-year-old freshman from Bisbee, says that someone on campus recently handed her a voter registration form, which is currently sitting on her dorm room desk. She wasn’t sure if she was going to vote. “Plus, people say that neither choice for president was really that good,” she says, referring to the 2020 election.

Daiana’s friend Valeria Candelas, who will be turning 18 in a month, plans to register right away.

“The whole Roe v. Wade thing could really affect me, so I want to vote as soon as I can,” Valeria says.

That comment prompted Daiana: “Yeah, that would be a reason to register.”

Xavier Urias, a freshman majoring in studio art, stopped by a booth run by Mission for Arizona, a Democratic group helping potential first-time voters register. 

“My friend said he registered and it was really easy,” Urias says. “I didn’t have any classes so I decided to stop and get it over with.” 

On voting, “It’s really important,” he says. “It’s our voice, our opportunity to make a change. It’s what makes the United States what it is.”

Not voting is not enough

Matty is a current law doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona and vocal anti-voting advocate. He used a pseudonym out of worry it would interfere with his law school endeavors. 

He calls not voting an “indictment of the system” and points to “the injustice of all of the people who should have a legitimate say in society, but don’t.”

While the “indictment” of not-voting remains either invisible or, in fact, capitalized on by those currently in power, Matty believes it to be important. Just as voting proponents say that voting is not enough, “I would say, not voting is not enough,” he says.

“The whole thing with voting is that it’s a way of participation or leveraging power that doesn’t go directly to the issues at hand,” he says. “It’s about getting someone into a place of power. It’s a cliché at this point, but politicians don’t really care about you or the issues. They care about your vote.”

Matty and other anti-voting advocates point out that the amount of time, effort, and money that goes into election campaigns, especially losing ones, could be much better spent. 

“Highlighting the dispossessed, the marginalized and the excluded in society is where real change always comes from,” Matty says. “The point should not be to assimilate or integrate those voices into a system of participation that reduces each of us to a unitary value. One single vote.”

Unlike some countries, including much of South America, Australia, the Netherlands, the United States doesn’t require that people vote.

One report found the average difference in voter turnout between countries with compulsory voting and countries without is 7.3%. Not-voting is seen by some, especially those tired of or oppressed by the government, as a freedom worth exercising.

However, the U.S. remains far behind in voter turnout compared to most other developed countries, as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. A 2020 Pew Research study ranked the U.S. 30 of 35 nations analyzed, smack between Estonia and Slovenia.

Compared with the U.S. at 55.7%, the highest turnout rates were in: Turkey (89% of voting-age population), Sweden (82.1%), Australia (80.8%), Belgium (77.9%) and South Korea (77.9%).

“While compulsory-voting laws aren’t always strictly enforced, their presence or absence can have dramatic effects on turnout,” the study said. “In Chile, for example, turnout plunged after the country moved from compulsory to voluntary voting in 2012 and began automatically putting all eligible citizens on the voter rolls.”

What’s getting people to the polls?

Thomas Collins, executive director of the Clean Elections Commission, spotlighted Arizona’s Yavapai County for its “off the charts participation” in elections. 

Michelle Burchill, the recently appointed recorder for Yavapai County, said that high voter turnout there is primarily due to a large senior citizen community and very active political parties.

“We have a lot of meetings and there’s always something happening here,” Burchill said. “Elections are a hot topic.” 

The previous Yavapai recorder, Leslie Hoffman, resigned after facing a barrage of harassment and threats from people who wrongly believe that Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Trump won Yavapai county. President Joe Biden won Arizona.

Burchill pointed to a program the county runs for high school classes, in which they do a basics civics course, running a mock “cookie election.” Students campaign, vote, and tabulate results for the best cookie. (The candidates are Oreo, chocolate chip, and Nutter Butter.) When they’re in high schools doing these civic courses, the recorder’s office officials also let students who are 18 register to vote.

For the “high enthusiasm” in Yavapai, Burchill mainly credited the parties.  

For now, Yavapai County is a Republican stronghold, while voting analysts see the Biden win as a signal that Arizona as a whole is moving in the opposite direction. Collins said that he expects more state resources to be poured into voter registration in the next 10 years, efforts that may counter active campaigns to suppress the vote.

One recently proposed law sought to entirely eliminate mail-in voting. Another law, set to take effect in mid-December can purge voters from registries. And then there are the initiatives led by current gubernatorial candidate, Kari Lake, who wanted to outlaw voting machines.

Together, the conflicting efforts have turned Arizona into what the Brennan Center recently called the “epicenter of the fight for voting rights.”

Collins called this an “increased tension between policies that are meant to ‘secure’ elections and barriers a voter faces to cast a ballot.” “Secure” was in scare-quotes because, as Collins and others repeatedly emphasize, elections in Arizona already are secure.

One rather mundane step that the Clean Elections Commission takes is sending a pamphlet to every voting household — that floppy black-and-white, bilingual booklet that comes in the mail before elections.

Despite frequently destined for a junk drawer or a recycling bin, that sort of information helps, Collins explained. It gives potential voters an overview of what’s on the ballot, encouraging them to study a bit and actually vote. Such efforts may not be enough compared to the false and increasingly loud narratives about fraud. 

One of the problems with that narrative is that it’s one-sided. “Election confidence is in asymmetrical decline,” Collins said, referring to Republicans’ loss of confidence in voting systems.

According to a recent Monmouth poll, for Republicans, the sense that our system of government is sound declined from 71% in early 2020 to 41% in 2021.

The head of Arizona’s Republican Party, Kelli Ward, sent out a mass email in late August calling people who claim that the 2020 election was secure “liars and losers,” as well as “delusional.” Ward claimed that recent election failures are leaving voters in Arizona “disenfranchised.”

“In the current climate, the polarization of the voting process itself is a real problem,” Collins says.

Officials such as Collins, or believers in the American voting system, face numerous obstacles: Suspicions about the integrity of elections, efforts to deter people from voting, and folks who either intentionally opt out or just aren’t interested.

“Identifying people who are not interested and communicating with them is hard and expensive,” Collins said.

Carla Roberts encourages students to register to vote on the University of Arizona campus Sept. 8, 2022. Roberts is a volunteer with Arizona Center for Empowerment and its sister organization Living United for Change in Arizona. Roberts became more politically active last year when several laws she disagreed with were enacted. Credit: Michael McKisson

And yet, as Kendi pointed out, those “other swing voters” may prove key to the future of elections. Reaching the disenfranchised or disinterested is a “more powerful recipe for success,” said Alex Gulotta, Arizona state director of All Voting is Local.”

“People are hungry for progressive change,” Gulotta said. He sees Arizona as teetering at a tipping point. In 2020, Arizona voted for a Democrat on the presidential ticket for only the second time since 1948. Analysts chalked up the change in part to demographic change: active voters are increasingly younger and Latino

“If people knew how close we were in Arizona” — to significant progressive change — “they probably would vote,” Gulotta said.

For Gulotta, the fix to get people to the polls isn’t logistical. “It’s getting people motivated. Winning the hearts and minds.” Having a vision for the future or having a charismatic candidate is what will bring the young and the apathetic to voting booths, Gulotta said.

Garcia said the steps that Chicanos Por La Causa is taking include a $10 million voter engagement campaign. They’re doing mailers — more than 6 million sent out to Arizonans this year — putting up billboards and social media posts, and, most crucially, canvassing. 

It’s non-partisan: “All we are hoping is that we get more Latinos to vote,” he said.

Garcia expects to hit 800,000 doors just this year in Maricopa, Pima and Yuma counties.

“For many people, it’s the first time anyone has ever knocked on their door to tell them to vote,” he said.

Their goal is to register at least 40,000 new Latinos, and cast at least 52,000 more Latino votes in the general election than compared to the primaries.

Direct interaction is their primary strategy. Gulotta, however, stresses: “We need initiatives that get people jazzed, and then get people to go vote for them.”

But that still leaves out one segment of the population: the disenfranchised.

More suffrage please

“It makes you feel powerless,” Kara says of how she feels in campaign season and on election day. “But I’m one of those people that when I feel powerless, I try to gain back control.”

Her way of doing that is in helping people who struggle to make it to the polls, reminding them to mail in their ballots, and reiterating how important elections are.

“I want to use the backlash to push people forward,” she says of outrage over mounting voting restrictions.

A number of efforts are aiming to both restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies and allow people charged with crimes, but not yet convicted, to be able to vote from jail.

A 1974 Supreme Court case guaranteed the right to vote from jail. In 2020, however, only 7 ballots were cast from Arizona’s jails, which average a daily population of about 14,000.

“If you had the right mix of sheriff and city recorder, you could at least get a pilot together,” Collins said, thinking of how voting from jail might work.

Meanwhile, Kara is holding get-out-the-vote events in Maricopa County. She’s focusing on the Maricopa County Attorney race, which has a lot riding on it.

The position can decide how much to prosecute, what plea bargains to offer, and how long sentences should be. If a more lenient attorney had been in office when Kara was last convicted, she may not have had her voting rights stripped from her. She may not have even gone back to prison.

“It’s so important that this year people get out and vote, especially for people who can’t,” Kara says. 

That’s why groups are on campuses registering younger voters, Chicanos por La Causa are hitting the streets, and officials in Yavapai are at high schools, encouraging voters-in-training to cast ballots for cookies.

As Garcia said, “We’re just investing in democracy.”

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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...