Judge questions Arizona's holiday voter signup deadline

PHOENIX - A federal judge sharply questioned Arizona's election director Friday about his decision to place the last day of voter registration on a holiday instead of extending the deadline by a day.

The question to Eric Spencer from U.S. District Judge Steven Logan came during a hearing on a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party over the Columbus Day deadline to register for the Nov. 8 general election.

The Democrats want Logan to order the state to place people who registered the next working day on the active voter rolls. They say it's needed because there was no mail service on Oct. 10 and state Motor Vehicle Division offices were closed.

"When you're dealing with lay people and people are trying to register to vote, doesn't it make sense to take into consideration that the deadline fell on a holiday?" Logan asked.

Spencer, who works for Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan, told Logan that he believes state law didn't permit him to move the date to the next day.

But former Secretary of State Ken Bennett did just that in 2012, when the voter registration deadline again fell on Columbus Day.

Doing so would also have created more problems by cutting the time between the close of registration and when early ballots are mailed, Spencer said.

About 40 percent of all Arizonans register either by mail or at the MVD. Spencer said in a declaration that at least 2,000 people registered on Oct. 11 but won't be able to vote, and the total is climbing as county recorders process the late registrations.

Logan issued no decision after Friday's lengthy hearing. He has given lawyers for both sides until Tuesday to provide additional legal briefing.

The lawyer for the Democratic Party, Kevin Hamilton, urged Logan to act to ensure that thousands of Arizonans aren't denied their constitutional right to cast a ballot.

"Here we have over 2,000 Arizona voters at a minimum -- for all of those registrations, all of those citizens, this is a complete disenfranchisement," Hamilton told Logan. "That by any measure is a severe burden on the right to vote."

But Assistant Attorney General Kara Karlson told Logan the Democrats waited too long to bring the challenge, since the deadline had been published early this year and they complained about it weeks before the deadline. She urged him to reject the request.

"This is a nakedly partisan attempt to change the rules of the game not only after the voter registration deadline has passed, but after early voting has started," she said.

Arizona was one of 10 states that initially refused to move the deadline forward by a day, but several agreed to changes.

The state party, joined by the Democratic National Committee, noted that many Arizonans could not register in person after Oct. 7 because MVD offices were closed or by mail after Oct. 8.

They allege that Reagan's action violated the National Voter Registration Act, the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Arizona law.

The state noted that most county recorder offices were open and the state's website for registration was also operational on the holiday, allowing many voters to register.

The secretary of state's office released this statement on Friday morning.

"The fact is the Arizona Secretary of State's office along with 14 other counties were open to register voters.  Plus, thousands of people found a way to register online throughout the day. Our office is uncomfortable with unilaterally moving deadlines that exist in state law. Even if we wanted to, the consequence would either be reducing the amount of time our county recorders have to process Registration form, or the number of days people have their early ballots. Neither approach is acceptable in our view. That said, we will be asking the legislature to change the law next year so we don't have this problem again."

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