Voting Rights in Arizona Back to the Future

Voting Rights in Arizona Back to the Future

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The voting rights struggle for Blacks in Arizona, in some respects, have been no different than those struggles of the old and new South. While no records exist of lynchings or killings of civil rights workers here as in Mississippi and other states in relation to voting rights, there still were acts of intimidation and barriers to registering and to casting ballots.

Now the current phase of attacks – through voter suppression tactics, calls for identification cards and birth certificates, and other regulations – is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era’s violent rejections toward advances Blacks made during the Reconstruction era, and the ultimate stripping away of rights for Blacks.

Today, Blacks in Arizona – and several other states in a union called the United States – are pushing to bring the future back to the “good ole days”… with Black people having to continually stay on the battlefield to exercise their right to vote and participate in the election of officials that regulate their lives and well being.

During the 1960s numerous reports surfaced in Arizona of Republican Party operative William H. Rehnquist participating in efforts to discourage Black voters from voting in Phoenix. Rehnquist would later go on to become a member of the United States Supreme Court, the body charged with protecting rights and enforcing the Constitution. He then became Chief Justice of the Court. What an ironic twist of events.

During his conformation hearing several individuals testified about the young lawyer’s participation in “Operation Eagle Eye,” an effort to prevent Blacks from voting. Rehnquist denied the allegations.

Today, many Republican-controlled state legislatures have become the newfangled “Operation Eagle Eye,” with modern rules and regulations all in the name of preventing voting fraud. Yet civil rights leaders reject such claims of a problem. The latest changes have become the “poll tax” of the 21st century.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law requiring people to show proof of citizenship when registering to vote – a decision which was celebrated by voting rights advocates. In Shelby County v. Holder, the same Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The ruling removed the coverage formula that required federal oversight for voting processes in nine states that had a history of voting rights discrimination against people of color.

That ruling gave many states – states like Arizona, Texas, Alabama, Florida, among others – the green light to implement numerous changes to voting rules that would adversely affect African Americans and other persons of color in their ability to exercise their right to vote. These rules now require showing identification cards and allow deleting names from the voting rolls, closing voting locations or shortening hours, and changing early voting rules.

These issues have prompted the U.S. Justice Department to file suit in some states to fight such new voting regulations. It also prompted the National Commission on Voting Rights to hold hearings across the country during 2013 and 2014. In January, a hearing was held at Arizona State University’s College of Law. During the eight-hour hearing, commissioners heard testimony from voters, community leaders, advocates and elections officials regarding challenges, successes and opportunities for reform in all aspects of voting in Arizona.

Dr. Warren H. Stewart, Sr., Arizona civil rights leader and pastor of First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, stated in his testimony that African Americans still face many obstacles to their right to vote.

“Voting rights are subject state regulations, which means Arizona’s laws are affected by changes of political climate and leadership, and have led to a regression in voter access, voter education and voter participation,” Stewart role commissioners. “Election laws passed under the super majority, Republican-controlled state legislature have led to practices that favor the Republican Party and and the majority White population in Arizona.”

When questioned recently if he believed there will ever be a time in Arizona and the country as a whole that voting rights wouldn’t be an issue, Stewart noted, “It is my hope, but systemic racism still exists. Moreover, the gerrymandering of elective districts often diminishes the voter power of districts predominantly of people of color.

The City of Phoenix has reduced voting places, but has extended the early voting days. Yet, the challenge for elderly Black residents and those with a disability is traveling to those voting locations – voting locations that are no longer in their neighborhoods.

Disenfranchisement is another issue faced by a number of Blacks. Because of a criminal justice system that has been less than just to a number of persons of color, many have lost their right to vote. The process for ex-felons to be re-enfranchised is a tedious task. The ability for them to vote or become “full” citizens with voting rights takes perseverance and dedication.

“Once the time has been spent for crimes committed, a process for restoration of voting rights should be advocated and provided for the formerly incarcerated citizens,” Dr. Stewart said.

He advocates for a less cumbersome process.

Giving people the ability to participate fully as a citizen allows them be more involved in society as opposed to being outsiders with no connection and no voice.

One organization that is leading an effort in several states to combat voter suppression laws as well as unjust and unfair voting rules that are targeting communities of color and other socio-economic groups is the Advancement Project.

The Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization consisting of veteran civil rights lawyers, was organized to develop and inspire community-based solutions based supported with legal analysis and public education campaigns rooted in a history of landmark civil rights victories.

In telephone conversation Project members noted the challenges and fight the organization is embattled in states with strict voter ID laws. Jennifer R. Farmer, Shuya Ohno and Katherine Gonzalez, all of the Advancement Project cited actions taken in Virginia, Georgia, Texas and other states to fight the controversial regulations.

They are working with other groups to fight what has become a “voting war.”

In a country that symbolizes democracy, freedom and protecting the rights of its citizens, there continues to be an on-going effort by several groups and conservative politicians to impede or to prevent citizens from participating in democracy and the electoral process.

The question many are asking, is America going to live up to its constitution for all its citizens.