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Judge asks why Arizona voting lawsuit was filed so close to election

FILE - In this April 4, 2016, file photo, Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan speaks during a news conference after she certified the official canvass results of the March 22 presidential primary in Phoenix. Voting rights organizations are suing Reagan over concerns that her office is no updating voters' addresses. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, announced the lawsuit from multiple voter rights organizations including the League of Women Voters of Arizona. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

PHOENIX – A judge presiding over a lawsuit that alleges Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan is failing to update voter registration addresses for certain people raised questions at a hearing Wednesday about why the case was filed so close to the Nov. 6 election.

U.S. District Judge James Teilborg also asked whether Reagan had the power to make the changes being sought by the League of Women Voters of Arizona and other groups.

The lawsuit alleges thousands of people have been harmed by Reagan’s failure to update voter registration records in cases where people have informed motor vehicle offices they have new addresses. A federal law from the 1990s allows people to register to vote at motor vehicle offices.

The hearing focused on requests by the groups that filed the lawsuit to order county election officials to count provisional ballots from voters who have changed their registration addresses at motor vehicle offices since late 2016. The groups also want the judge to order Reagan to send letters informing all affected voters that their registration may be out of date.

“For any person who reported an address update to ADOT within the last two years, it’s very likely that their voter registration address may not be updated to their current residential address,” Sara Brannon, managing attorney for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

Brannon said as many as 384,000 people throughout the state could be affected by this.

“Our concern is that all of those 384,000 of those people may have some challenges trying to vote in the general election in November, either through voting in person or getting their early mail ballot delivered to them,” she said.

Lawyers for Reagan said the groups may have found a technical violation of the federal National Voter Registration Act, but they can’t show their members have been harmed. The secretary of state’s attorneys also said there’s no evidence to show voters have been disenfranchised and contend the requests made by the opposing lawyers won’t likely resolve the issue and instead would be costly and could cause confusion.

The judge pointed out that a top leader of the League of Women Voters of Arizona knew more than a year ago about the issues in the lawsuit, yet the case wasn’t filed until Aug. 18.

Lawyers who are pressing the case against Reagan said filing a lawsuit any sooner would have sunk the groups’ negotiations with state officials in hopes of resolving the matter. “We did have to make a decision about whether we wanted to risk what we thought at the time were productive negotiations,” said attorney Stuart Naifeh.

But Teilborg kept asking why the suit wasn’t filed sooner. “You knew that at some point you would be faced with this type of proceeding if you had not settled it,” Teilborg told another lawyer.

Stephen Tully, an attorney representing Reagan, said the groups that sued knew about the deadlines.

Under questioning from the judge, Eric Spencer, state elections director in Reagan’s office, said the secretary of state doesn’t have the power to make the changes that the groups are seeking through their lawsuit.

Lawyers for the groups disputed that Reagan can’t force the changes and said she had a duty to comply with the relevant federal election laws.

Teilborg didn’t say when he would rule.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Griselda Zetino contributed to this report.

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