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Latino activists aim to register 75k new voters in Arizona

When she was a child, Alejandra Gomez and her parents moved to Arizona from California because of laws like 1994's Proposition 187 which made it likely that her undocumented father would be detained and deported, breaking the family up. But the fear returned when Arizona began passing laws like 2010's SB 1070.

"We actually came to Arizona seeking something better, to be able to live a life without fear," Gomez said. "And to have that happen again was devastating and was hopeless."

Community advocacy groups like Arizona Advocacy Network, Mi Familia Vota and Puente decided to work together to make sure eligible minorities were registering to vote — and actually making it to the polls. They called the new coalition One Arizona

"What started as that fear, it became a movement," said Gomez, who's now the Executive Director of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA). "I like to say that I didn't become political by choice, it actually was a necessity."

Since its founding, One Arizona has contacted over 1 million voters and added 50,000 people to the permanent early voting list. 

Monday they launched an even more ambitious project: Viva the Vote, a campaign to register 75,000 new voters across the state.

"It's not about a party, a candidate — it's about us learning the process, getting people who represent us," Gomez said. "A campaign that is about the people and the future of Arizona."

This fall, it may matter more than ever who shows up to vote, One Arizona organizers said.

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Communicating this to voters is crucial because Arizona is ground zero for many important issues, Promise Arizona Executive Director Petra Falcon said.

"We're fighting for racial reform, wages, safe neighborhoods," said Falcon. "We are connecting the dots to voting this year."

The next president will appoint a new Supreme Court Justice. The Court is set to review waves of state voter laws that relate to provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act

In each state, politicians from the capitol to the local school board will be elected to make decisions about roads, law enforcement and textbooks that affect people daily.

Yet recent state laws are presenting challenges for both voters and community organizers this year, said Mi Familia Vota Arizona Deputy Director Eduardo Sainz.

"In Arizona we are the leader of making it tough for minorities to go out and vote," Sainz said. "People have different struggles every single election."

Last March was an especially discouraging month, said Arizona Advocacy Network Executive Director Samantha Pstross.

In the past, community organizers could collect mail-in ballots that voters had forgotten to return on time and carry them to polling stations. 

Early in the month, the Gov. Doug Ducey signed a house bill that makes turning in a ballot for someone else a felony punishable by heavy fines and up to a year in jail. 

Then massive lines and delays during the state caucuses in Maricopa County, initially attributed to independent voters, revealed a dramatic reduction in county polling stations. The county attributed the cuts to saving money; community advocates say the move amounts to deliberate voter suppression.

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"It was such a devastating time," Pstross said. "It felt like we were going back in time, like we were facing increased barriers."

But Gomez said there was also a secondary message to the long lines at caucus polling station. One reasons the lines stayed long was that people were committed enough to voting that instead of leaving, some waited over six hours for the chance to cast their ballots.

"That is determination and that is persistence," Gomez said. "The popular narrative is that, 'oh, communities of color are not showing up to vote,' and that's a false narrative."

And so Gomez, Pstross, Sainz and other One Arizona leaders are reaching out to community organizers from all backgrounds to push voter education further into growing minority communities.

"The politics in the state of Arizona continues to be divisive around language, who you look like, what you look like," Falcon said. "And I think we need to look at that as an opportunity."

That means reaching out across political and racial lines, Sainz said. "In order to change the state, we need to not ... be isolating ourselves."

Community leaders from African American, Asian American and Native American organizations met to publicly discuss voting challenges in Arizona and projects like the Viva Vote campaign at a roundtable hosted Wednesday morning by New American Media at South Mountain Community College.

Because these issues do not only affect the Latin American community, the members of the panel represented a number of newly collaborating communities that share issues with the current system. 

Former Arizona State Representative Cloves Campbell, owner and editor of a black community newspaper called Arizona Informant, sat in a chair next to Tom Arviso, CEO and Publisher of The Navajo Times, the largest Native American owned newspaper in the world.

They have a common problem — that their people are not able or not properly informed enough to cast a vote, and that new laws are making it even more difficult than before.

"I've seen our neighborhoods grow," Campbell said. "Yet every election we continue to lose polling places."

The problems are worst in areas with Republican politicians, who use voter disenfranchisement as part of a deliberate strategy to stay in power, Campbell said.

"That goes to show that the Voting Rights Act was happily ignored by the state of Arizona," Campbell said. "They didn't even try to make it close."

Arviso is also concerned about voting districts being adjusted to minimize the impact of Navajo voters.

"They've tried to realign the lines to get the native vote all in one area," Arviso said.

Officials also won't take tribal government identification, even though they serve all other identification purposes and the state often can't process many of the Navajo Nation's more unique addresses which are relative to landmarks instead of streets, Arviso said.

And as with many other minority groups, language is an issue for non native English speakers who can't find poll workers fluent in Navajo, Spanish or other dialects.

That means inter-community collaboration is important as well as voter registration and education, Arviso said.

"When we all get together, all of us here like collectively in this room, and we channel all our efforts to what we think is good for our people, that's what will help make a difference," Arviso said. "And our role as media is to join that effort and do what we can make sure our voters are informed."

While there's no one-size-fits-all solution, some like updating election technology has the potential to improve voting access for nearly all voters, said Arizona Advocacy Network Executive Director Samantha Pstross.

"Our elections are stuck in the 20th century," Pstross said. "We need to modernize our elections, to make our elections more accessible."

Postal service delays can jeopardize mail in ballots votes sent close to election cut off dates and laws guaranteeing workers four hours to vote aren't sufficient when polling wait times can exceed six hours, as they did at many Maricopa County stations in March, Pstross said.

“We need to be able to talk about making our elections easier," Pstross said. "Making it easier and more secure for people to vote and to remove those barriers.”

That means addressing fears of high-tech voting tampering head on.

"There’s this fear that if we make elections easier, there will be bigger problems, there will be more fraud," Pstross said. "It’s so much easier to pay your bills than in the 1980s and in many ways it's more secure — technology can actually help us be way more secure.”

There's also still room for more traditional approaches like the diverse group of volunteers who've been going door to door helping with new registrations and with getting further useful information into the hands of individuals who need it, Gomez said. 

"What we have seen is...we have seen young people, older communities, undocumented families, all going out and registering people day in and day out in this summer heat," Gomez said.

One of those volunteers is Flor Benavides.

At 6-years-old, she left El Salvador to join her parents in the United States and in 2012, with guidance and financial help from her grandmother, she qualified for a new program: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

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"I didn't realize before how important voting was," Benavides said. "I realized that a lot of our people — minorities, Hispanics, women, teenagers — were not represented."

So the same year that Benavides got temporary legal status in the United States, she joined Arizona Center for Empowerment (ACE) and began working with their voting registration program.

She soon found that many people, especially those her age, were discouraged about the whole process. All they heard was negative news that didn't answer their questions about issues, candidates or the voting process itself and so they wondered: was it worth it go get registered?

The answer is yes, Benavides said.

"We need to start voicing our opinions through local elections," Benavides said. "Those are the ones that are going to change what happens here, to us, to our children, to our future generation."

Knowing that their votes will add up, Benavides tries to change their minds, one at a time. "I tell them we need a lot of support."

That important voter information includes connections to sites like Maricopa County Recorder’s website where Arizona residents can enter an address to find their designated polling place.

“My biggest worry for this election is that my community will not be informed on the issues," Sainz said. "In order to change these issues you have on a daily basis, you have to vote, and if you don't have that right to vote or you can't vote, make sure you take someone else out to vote on election day."

But voter advocates should stay optimistic about the future as they prepare for upcoming Arizona primaries and national elections, Falcon said. 

“We need to expect those long lines, we want those long lines,” Falcon said. ”Because that means there's a lot of people going out to vote, hopefully for the first time. We should expect that and we should prepare for it now."

In her household alone, that means getting four generations of voters out the door and to the polls.

"It's an opportunity for us to send a powerful message. The powerful message is we won't stand for this language that divides us," Falcons said. "That we are out there that day, that it becomes a day of celebration."

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1 comment on this story

Aug 19, 2016, 1:31 pm
-0 +0

I hate all voter registration drives. I’ll tell you why…

Anyone who doesn’t want to vote shouldn’t be voting. If someone has to be pressured in to voting, then they will most likely vote for whoever or whatever the voter registration drive tells him/her to vote for. Or, they’ll vote a straight party ticket, or they’ll vote for whoever has a certain skin color or who’s taller.

The information on how to register and how to vote is out there, and it isn’t hard to find. Anyone who wants to vote will take the initiative all on their own and do what needs to be done to get his/her vote in. The people who do that, in my estimation, are far more likely to research candidates and issues, and exercise independent thought and reason before casting their vote.

Take the TV show Survivor, for instance. You wouldn’t want anyone who has never seen an episode of the show to decide who should be voted off the island, right? Well, it is time we start looking at voting for political office the exact same way.

If you don’t know about or care about the issues, then it is irresponsible for you to be voting.

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Garret Schwartz

Petra Falcon, right, describes her pride at helping register more the 40,000 voters since 2010 after growing up with school faculty and peers who chastised her because of her race while ONE Arizona members Alejandra Gomez and Samantha Pstross look on during a New America Media round table on voting challenges in Arizona at South Mountain Community College on Wednesday.