Q&A: Adrian Fontes discusses his election victory over incumbent Helen Purcell and his vision for the County Recorder’s Office.
Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes has lowered an estimate of American citizens in the county whose voter registrations were blocked because they didn’t fill out the form correctly,basing his new estimate on further research into roughly 100,000 registration forms that initially were rejected by the office.
Fontes’ effort to register citizens who were initially blocked was endorsed Wednesday by a former Arizona attorney general.
After digging more deeply into the matter this week, Fontes said a non-scientific sample suggests the number of citizens who weren’t able to register could be closer to 17,000 rather than the roughly 58,000 originally thought.
The newly elected Democrat has raised an alarm that eligible voters may have been denied the right to vote because their forms were missing proof of citizenship such as a passport, birth certificate, naturalization number, tribal ID or driver’s license issued after 1996.
Fontes hired nine temporary staff members to perform extra research in the motor-vehicle system to verify citizenship and add eligible applicants to the voter rolls. Fontes appears to be the only county recorder doing so, and his actions have drawn criticism from some experts.
“What we’re doing is not illegal,” Fontes told The Arizona Republic. “If you read the entire statute, and you take it in context, I’m doing exactly what I should be doing. And that’s enabling U.S. citizens to vote.”
Controversy over actions
Legal and elections experts are split.
Critics say Fontes is not following the letter of the law, which repeatedly states that voter-registration applicants must provide proof of citizenship and that county recorders must reject forms that lack proof. A 2013 Arizona attorney general advisory opinion and the secretary of state’s 2014 Elections Procedures Manual echo those phrases.
“If they want to vote, then they can provide the correct information,” said former Arizona Republican Party Chairman Randy Pullen, who led the Proposition 200 campaign that enacted voter-ID restrictions. “It’s pretty clear it’s not the responsibility of a county recorder or the state to research and find out whether or not someone is a citizen. … Why don’t we research everybody? We can go through all the MVD records, and if they’re not registered to vote, why don’t we register them to vote then? His argument is fallacious at best.”
But former Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, the Republican who defended Proposition 200 at the U.S. Supreme Court and wrote the 2013 advisory opinion, said he agreed with Fontes.
“(Fontes’ approach) sounds reasonable to me. The point was to prevent non-citizens from voting. If the recorder chooses to check to see if they are a citizen, I think the purpose of the statute is fulfilled,” Horne said. “I don’t think anyone wants a citizen denied the right to vote.”
Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo, a Democrat who helped bring the lawsuit against Proposition 200 that went to the Supreme Court, said he applauds the recorder.
“We should be working just as hard to put people on the voter-registration rolls as (the Secretary of State’s Office is) taking people off” who move out of state, Gallardo said. “I think it’s a good thing (Fontes) is going these extra steps. These are extra steps that probably should have been taken to begin with.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is considering all legal options, said Theresa Lee, a staff attorney at the organization’s Voting Rights Project.
Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan has declined to offer an opinion.
“This is a subject our county recorders will be discussing,” Secretary of State’s Office spokesman Matt Roberts said. “We are looking forward to the outcome of those conversations.”
Roberts denied Fontes’ claim that the office has proposed updates to the procedures manual that would block Fontes’ new procedure.
Though thousands of voters may have been affected, the estimate of how many has been substantially lowered after the Recorder’s Office performed more research.
Fontes originally noted a small non-scientific sample taken from 100,000 registration forms showed a rate of rejection that could work out to as many as 58,000 U.S. citizens being denied the right to vote.
But after excluding 44,000 citizens who successfully registered later after fixing their forms, and other forms that had too little information to match, the new rate of permanent rejection of U.S. citizens instead could approach 17,000 or so, his office estimated.
The rejections seem to impact independent voters the most.
Eighty-five out of 130 sampled applicants whose voter-registration forms were denied since 2005 were determined to be U.S. citizens as identified by MVD records. Others had too little information to provide a “hard match.”
Of those 85, 51 had no party designation, 18 were Democrats and 16 were Republicans. Twenty-three had Hispanic surnames.
Pullen, the former state GOP chairman, predicted Fontes will face re-election trouble over the controversy in 2020.
“When the voters see what has happened, they will say this guy is not following the law,” Pullen said. “It will be challenged in court, even if it has to go all the way back to the Supreme Court. … He will lose, and that will set the stage for him losing the election.”
The cost for temporary workers Fontes has hired to research registrations is not yet known. The six full-time and three part-time workers are paid $10 an hour.
The conflict is limited to state-issued registration forms. Federal forms do not require applicants to provide documentation of citizenship, though they do have to sign an affidavit.
The Supreme Court ruled that voters who register with the federal form can be blocked in Arizona from participating in state and local elections.
Arizona election guidelines say state election officials should first research the citizenship status of applicants who use the federal form before adding them to the rolls, a process Fontes says sets a double standard.
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