By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — The grass lawns in front of the Arizona Capitol were filled with brightly painted circus-style games on Feb. 28, all of them satirical references to recent legislation restricting voting rights.
“We’re here to demonstrate that inside of those (legislative) chambers, Republican legislators are playing with people’s right to vote, and they want to pass ridiculous bills that are based on lies and that have turned our legislature into a circus,” said Paulette Zinzun, the voting rights coalition coordinator with Progress Arizona who helped organize the event.
A smiling volunteer in a rainbow tutu greeted arrivals behind a red striped ticket booth, calling out, “Welcome to the circus, it’s not as crazy as the one inside!” An imposing stilt walker in a suit and tie stood between a blue cardboard mailbox and a white ballot drop box with “voting center” written on it in red letters. Players took an oversized green mail ballot and tried to get past him to deposit it in either box. No one succeeded. He blocked their deposits and asked for identification, told players they had been removed from the Active Early Voter List, or said the voting center had been shut down.
GOP lawmakers have advanced several proposals that restrict voting access by prohibiting drop-boxes, eliminating early-mail in voting, and favoring precinct-style voting over voting centers, which have been found to increase voter turnout. Republicans introduced about 100 bills to restrict elections, and roughly 60 are still alive.
Mindy Lamb took her mom and her golden retriever to the event, all three of them dressed up as clowns in a nod to those inside the legislative chambers nearby, she said.
“We have a bunch of clowns — Republican clowns — making decisions that are just absolutely ridiculous. They’re going off the Big Lie,” Lamb said, her voice pinched from her red prop nose.
The Big Lie is the false claim that former President Donald Trump had the 2020 presidential election stolen from him because of fraudulent voting. Republicans have said everything from insecure tabulating machines to ballots cast in the name of dead people ]lead to fraudulent votes, and GOP lawmakers are using the baseless — and debunked — conspiracy theories as the basis for proposals to make major changes to elections in Arizona and across the country.
Lawmakers have introduced measures to replace tabulating machines with hand-counts, which have higher rates of error and much longer wait times, and increased voter roll surveillance, which could lead to more voters being purged from the rolls. One of the more outlandish measures even calls for the creation of “smart-boxes” to supervise ballot deposits and combat unfounded claims of ballot stuffing.
Rivko Knox is concerned these election conspiracy theories influencing legislation come from a small, but loud minority that doesn’t represent the majority of Arizonans. The petite 83-year-old watched the event’s games with her clipboard full of citizen initiative signature sheets held close to her chest. For Knox, a volunteer for the League of Women Voters, voter activism is a lifelong endeavor.
“Those of us who believe the right to vote is a right have to do what we can, just have to keep plugging away,” she said, “We have to let the legislature know they’re only hearing from a very loud and threatening minority of voters.”
A national poll from last year found that 62% of Republicans believed that the so-called Maricopa County “audit” proved voter fraud — a key tenet of Big Lie conspiracy theories. The audit uncovered no proof of fraud, and all but one of its claims was found to be misleading or outright false. A more recent poll, however, concluded that as much as 66% of Arizonans support the Freedom to Vote Act, a federal law that would do the exact opposite of the many bills being proposed in the state legislature. That legislation would increase voting access by expanding mail-in voting and early voting and allowing the acceptance of alternative voter identification.
While visitors at the Capitol “circus” on Monday enjoyed popcorn and cotton candy and played games to bring awareness to voting rights legislation, lawmakers continued to pass measures that restrict voter access and advance election conspiracy theories.
In the House of Representatives, a resolution was introduced that would increase identification requirements for both in-person and early ballot voters. In-person voters must provide a valid form of picture ID and supporting documents with address if the ID doesn’t include it. Early ballots would require a signed affidavit that includes a copy of the early voter’s ID and birthdate — without either, the ballot won’t be counted. The House also approved House Bill 2492, which would attempt to do away with the state’s bifurcated voting system that allows voters who don’t provide proof of citizenship to vote in only federal races, but not state and local contests.
State law requires people to show proof of citizenship to register to vote, which voters approved as Proposition 200 in 2004. But the federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires states to accept federal voter registration forms, which don’t have a proof-of-citizenship requirement, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that Arizona can’t reject those forms, despite the disparity between state and federal law on the issue.
House member Rep. Brian Fernandez, D-Yuma, made an appearance at the event, his cocker spaniel in tow.
“We just voted on a bill to require voter ID. That’s one more way the legislature is looking to limit access to voting. I believe voting should be as easy and convenient as possible,” he said.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.