When Aracely Calderon, a naturalized US citizen from Guatemala, went to vote in downtown Phoenix just before the polls closed in Arizona’s March 22 presidential primary, there were more than 700 people in a line stretching four city blocks. She waited in line for five hours, becoming the last voter in the state to cast a ballot at 12:12 am. “I’m here to exercise my right to vote,” she said shortly before midnight, explaining why she stayed in line. Others left without voting because they didn’t have four or five hours to spare. The lines were so long because Republican election officials in Phoenix’s Maricopa County, the largest in the state, reduced the number of polling places by 70 percent from 2012 to 2016, from 200 to just 60—one polling place per 21,000 registered voters. Previously, Maricopa County would have needed federal approval to reduce the number of polling sites, because Arizona was one of 16 states where jurisdictions with a long history of discrimination had to submit their voting changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This part of the VRA blocked 3,000 discriminatory voting changes from 1965 to 2013. That changed when the Supreme Court gutted the law in the June 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.
The polling place reductions in Maricopa County were a glaring example of a disturbing trend. The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights surveyed 381 of the 800 counties previously covered by Section 5 where polling place information was available in 2012 or 2014 and found there are 868 fewer places to cast a ballot in 2016 in these areas. “Out of the 381 counties in our study, 165 of them—43 percent—have reduced voting locations,” says the important new report. While new statewide voting restrictions like voter-ID laws and cuts to early voting in places like Texas and North Carolina have received national attention, the polling place closures could have as big of an impact in 2016—the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA.
Arizona, the poster child for voting problems in the primary, closed the highest percentage of polling places in the study. “Almost every county in the state reduced polling places in advance of the 2016 election and almost every county closed polling places on a massive scale, resulting in 212 fewer polling places,” says the report (emphasis in original). Tucson’s Pima County—the second largest in the state, which is 35 percent Latino and leans Democratic—“is the nation’s biggest closer of polling places,” from 280 in 2012 to 218 in 2016.
Many of these counties have been hot spots for voting discrimination. Cochise County, on the Mexico border, which is 30 percent Latino, was sued by the Justice Department in 2006 failing to print election materials in Spanish or have Spanish-speaking poll workers, in violation of the VRA. Today, the county “is the nation’s biggest closer by percentage,” having shuttered 63 percent of its voting locations since Shelby. There will be only 18 polling places for 130,000 residents in 2016, down from 49 polling places in 2012.