PHOENIX – As Election Day looms, a series of stunning errors, misstatements and misinformation by public officials in Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest county, has some wondering if years of work to encourage Arizona Latinos to vote is being undermined before the election.
Three weeks before the high-stakes national and local elections, the Maricopa County elections office issued two pieces of voter information – a letter attached to a voter identification card, and a bookmark – printed in English on one side and Spanish on the other side.
The English versions gave the correct election date of Nov. 6, but the Spanish versions gave the wrong voting date: Nov. 8 – two days after the election.
About 60 percent of Arizona’s voters live in Maricopa County, which includes the city of Phoenix. Nearly 40,000 new voters have been registered in the county in the last two years, part of the largest voter registration drive in the state since César Chávez organized there in the 1970s, according to organizers.
This year, Maricopa County’s zealously anti-immigrant sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is running for re-election the state that in 2012 enacted what was then the toughest anti-immigrant legislation in the country.
Although the errors in Maricopa County are among the most blatant, election-related mistakes have cropped up throughout the state. In some communities, voters were told their polling places were closed, but not told where to find their new voting location.
Nationwide, get-out-the-vote efforts, mostly the work of thousands of young volunteers, have been countered by similarly zealous attempts to restrict who is allowed to vote.
According to a new study by the Advancement Project, some 10 million Latino voters could be prevented from casting ballots this year by provisions enacted by legislatures in more than 20 states.
The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing how demanding states – including Arizona – can be in requiring voters to prove residency and citizenship. Some worry that recent state mandates disenfranchise not only Latino voters, but also Native Americans and young people, including those still in high school or college who do not have driver’s licenses or utility bills to prove residency.
In Maricopa County, the incorrect voting materials in Spanish were distributed by County Recorder Helen Purcell, in charge of voter registration in the elections office.
Around the same time, Purcell appeared on television news warning “Being in custody of somebody else’s ballot without their permission is a Class 5 Felony.” The announcement created confusion and fear among community volunteers who were organizing to pick up and deliver sealed ballots on Election Day for voters who can’t make it to the polls.
It was the young organizers and volunteers that Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona, thought of first when the mistakes and misinformation began to flowing from the Maricopa County recorder.
“The first thing that went through my mind was all the young people risking their own goals, sacrificing their time, working so hard – and then having them wonder if all of it was out the door because this public official made these errors,” said Falcon.
Arizona Promise, backed by other organizations, stepped forward quickly to hold Maricopa County officials accountable for the errors and demand they repair the damage.
For several days, Purcell shrugged off the wrong date as just a mistake; she denied ever saying volunteers who pick up and pick up and deliver ballots to polling places are breaking the law.
“That’s why we started to fight back,” said Falcon. “Are these mistakes part of a conspiracy? I don’t know. I do know that it’s an injustice to voters and to the Latino community, but also an injustice to our volunteers … the young people who want to see change in our community.”
After Promise Arizona members met with Purcell and Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborn, presented a letter promising legal action, and petitions requesting a solution, Purcell issued a statement:
“I wish I could say we never made a mistake in this office, but we do,” she said. “However, the suggestion that this office would be party to a dark conspiracy to depress voter turnout among any constituency or ethnic group is contrary to the history, the commitment and ideals of this office, my staff and my life’s work. It is simply a malicious lie.”
She promised a “very aggressive” publicity campaign for the next 10 days leading up to the election, with advertising on Spanish language stations. She said her office would work with churches to spread word about the correct day of the election.
She insisted that she never said collecting ballots was a felony; she says she had meant to say that impersonating an election department official was a crime.
Falcon, at Promise Arizona, is satisfied for now. Instead of focusing on conspiracy theories, she said she hopes people will focus on the bigger message of holding decision makers and officials accountable for errors and inaccuracies.
“This is the importance of people advocating on their own behalf. If we hadn’t surfaced the issue, it may have gone by the wayside,” she said. “We must hold our institutions accountable and responsible and require that they reverse the errors they made.”
Still, some can’t help but wonder if the series of mistakes is part of a backlash – an attempt to mute the Latino and the youth vote that could turn the tide in the conservative state.
While the presidential election and national issues such as immigration reform are top priorities for many, equally critical are the choices for local elected leaders, including sheriffs, school board members and state legislators who make decisions affecting local issues such as education, jobs, housing, civil rights and law enforcement.
This weekend, a thousand volunteers, some too young to vote themselves, canvassed neighborhoods in Maricopa and other Arizona counties spreading the word that voting is a powerful way to let your voice be heard.
Pedro Lopez, 20, was among them.
Lopez was born in California but, as a child, moved to Mexico, where his mother is an elementary school principal. When he was in eighth grade, Lopez learned that he is an American citizen.
When he was 15, Lopez returned to the United States, to Arizona, to finish high school. He was stunned to discover how American citizens of Latino descent were being mistreated.
“Even as U.S. citizens, we still don’t get treated like U.S. citizens,” he said. “I know how it is to struggle. I don’t want my family and other families to struggle.”
Lopez was in high school when Arizona lawmakers passed SB 1070, harsh anti-immigrant legislation, and Sheriff Arpaio took full advantage, ratcheting up his sweeps. Outraged, Lopez joined Promise Arizona and began speaking publicly and working to register voters.
During his school vacation, Lopez packed his clothes, a picture of his family and headed to Yuma County on the Arizona border with Mexico. Living in the janitor’s closet at a Catholic church, he spent his summer registering families to vote. In two months, his young crew registered 850 voters.
“The first week, people weren’t opening the door; they were afraid,” he said. “Later, when they trusted me, they said they didn’t want to register, they didn’t want to cause any problems.”
This election, Lopez isn’t only a volunteer, he is a candidate, running for election to a local school board.
“We knew it would be a tough election – we knew they would use every trick,” he said. “We also know our work will pay off in the end.”