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Updated Jun 25, 2013 - 6:19 pm

Arizona GOP leaders applaud voting rights ruling

PHOENIX — Arizona will not be required to seek federal approval on
election changes ranging from voter district overhauls to polling place
relocations after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Tuesday hailed by
Republican elected officials as a victory for state sovereignty.

The 5-4 ruling struck down a potent provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act
that required Arizona and eight other states to run election policies by the
Justice Department to guard against voting discrimination. The high court said
the preapproval requirement was unconstitutional because it relies on
40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress. It directed Congress to
create a new formula to determine which state or local governments should be
covered.

Gov. Jan Brewer said the preapproval provision had improperly “trapped Arizona
under the thumb of the federal government” and dismissed critics who insist the
state needs federal oversight to protect against ongoing voter
disenfranchisement.

“We were being punished by the Voting Rights Act for indiscretions, bad things
that took place decades ago. And those haven’t taken place any longer, we have
grown. And so it was the right thing to do and I’m pleased,” Brewer told
reporters during a press conference Tuesday.

The state’s top prosecutor described the preapproval process as irrational and
humiliating and said Arizona never should have been included among the nine
states, mainly in the South, singled out for racial discrimination. Arizona had
assigned a team consisting of two lawyers and a paralegal to inform the Justice
Department of its election changes.

“This is supposed to be a federation where the states and federal government
are sovereign,” said Attorney General Tom Horne. “It’s not consistent with the
notion that Arizona has to say `mother, may I?’ to the Federal Government every
time it wants to change some mundane policy.”

Secretary of State Ken Bennett said accusations that Arizona’s election laws
discriminate against minority voters are unfounded.

“We treat everybody the same,” he said. “You show citizenship to register to
vote, you show ID to cast your vote and everybody is treated the same.”

Arizona has an ugly history of racial segregation and election barriers
targeting black and Native American voters, and in recent years civil rights
proponents have accused the state of trying to suppress Latino voter turnout in
the face of a growing Hispanic population.

Last week, the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law that required proof of
citizenship from people registering to vote in federal elections. A day later,
Brewer signed a sweeping election bill that will make it harder for voters to
obtain and return mail ballots and could limit Latino voter outreach, according
to voter advocacy groups. Opponents had hoped it would be struck down during the
Justice Department review, but the election bill no longer needs federal
approval under Tuesday’s court ruling.

“We are going to continue to see these barriers to voting,” said Alessandra
Soler, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
“Discrimination at the polls exists today in Arizona and those realities cannot
be dismissed as a relic of the past.”

Oscar Tillman, president of the NAACP in Maricopa County, the state’s most
populous, said only elected officials who want to suppress minority turnout
should welcome the Supreme Court ruling. He noted that there is only one black
lawmaker in Arizona’s 90-member Legislature despite the state’s diverse
population.

“Look at the racial makeup of things. We can say `Yes, look, everything is OK
and look at the White House,’ but look at what it took to get him to the White
House,” said Tillman, referring to President Barack Obama’s election as the
first black president in 2008. “State after state there is voter suppression.
So it’s not a matter of the past when there are still issues.”

The Justice Department aggressively vetoed many of Arizona’s election policies
in recent decades under the Voting Rights Act, including four statewide
redistricting plans and various voting changes that could have curbed turnout
among Hispanic and American Indian voters with limited English proficiency.

Without federal protection, minority groups will have to be more vigilant
against voter suppression efforts, said Sam Wercinski of the Arizona Advocacy
Network, an election watchdog group.

“Arizona voters are less protected. Their right to vote is at greater risk
today because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision,” he said.

Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation for the conservative Goldwater
Institute in Phoenix, said he does not expect any changes in voter turnout
because of the ruling.

“It’s important that nothing that was illegal yesterday is legal today,” he
said.

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