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By Griselda Nevarez

PHOENIX, AZ -- Since 2012, José Barboza has been collecting early ballots from Latino voters in Arizona and turning them in to election offices to ensure the votes are counted, a strategy that local voter-outreach organizations have used for years to boost Latino voter turnout in the state.

But when the November election rolls around, the 24-year-old could face up to a year in prison and a $150,000 fine if he’s caught collecting early ballots.

It’s all because of a new Arizona law that makes it a felony to collect someone else’s ballot, with the exception of family members, individuals who live in the same household and caregivers. The law will take effect this summer, unless pending litigation intervenes.

Jose Barboza, 24, says a new Arizona law that prohibits people from collecting early ballots would make him a criminal. He has been collecting early ballots from Latino voters and turning them in to election offices for years.Jose Barboza

“This will make me a criminal,” Barboza said about the new law. “I’m not a criminal. I’ve been doing this work for four years, and the last thing I want to be called is a criminal.”

In 2010, only about 91,000 Latinos in Arizona were signed up to the state’s permanent early voting list, which allows them to receive an early ballot in the mail prior to an election and increases the likelihood that they’ll vote. That number has jumped to about 300,000 thanks to voter-outreach groups working to sign up more Latinos onto the list.

State Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale) said she introduced House Bill 2023 to ban the practice of ballot collection because she wanted to “make sure that the public continues to trust and have faith in the electoral process.” She also cited concerns about voter fraud.

“I would think that our government would be supportive of community groups that have done a good job of encouraging and fostering voter participation - instead, we're getting punished for our efforts." - Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey echoed that sentiment in a statement he released after he signed the bill in March.

“This bill ensures a secure chain of custody between the voter and the ballot box,” Ducey stated. “We join 18 other states in this common sense approach to maintaining the integrity of our elections.”

State lawmakers have been trying to pass similar legislation since 2013, around the same time that organizations like Promise Arizona — which Barboza is part of — began going door to door and collecting sealed early ballots as a way to increase Latino voter turnout. Republican voter-outreach groups have done the same but on a much smaller scale.

Staff and volunteers working for voter-outreach organizations say they typically collect early ballots from voters who miss the deadline to mail back their ballots and can’t take them to an election office. These voters include the elderly, disabled, multiple-job workers and those without a car.

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“I would think that our government would be supportive of community groups that have done a good job of encouraging and fostering voter participation,” said Petra Falcón, executive director of Promise Arizona. “Instead, we’re getting punished for our efforts, and they’re tying our hands. That is not good governance.”

Now that Falcón’s group and others like it can’t collect early ballots, they’re trying to come up with other ways to ensure Hispanic voters to turn in their ballots. Falcón said her group plans to call Latino voters to remind them about the deadline to mail back their early ballots, and to let them know they can take their ballots to the polls on election day.

Cristián Avila of Mi Familia Vota said his group plans to drive voters to election offices on election day and leading up to it so they can drop off their early ballots.

Like Falcón, Avila opposes the new ballot-collection law and is afraid that it will hinder his group’s efforts to increase the number of Hispanic voters who cast ballots this year. He said the Arizona State Legislature “should be looking for ways to make voting a lot more accessible and easier, rather than pushing for these kinds of laws.”

Both Promise Arizona and Mi Familia Vota are part of a coalition called One Arizona. Formed in 2010, the coalition works to increase Latino voter turnout in the state by registering Hispanics to vote and signing them up to receive receive early ballots in the mail. Since 2010, it has registered up to 125,000 new Latino voters. This year, its goal is to register at least 70,000 new Hispanic voters.

“However, now we live in a world where we have to keep up with the pace of discriminatory voting changes and be prepared to mount long protracted litigation to contest those actions.” — Kristen Clarke

There are currently more than 625,000 Latino registered voters in Arizona, making up about 17 percent of the state’s registered electorate, according to a recent analysis by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

The analysis also shows that Arizona’s Latino registered voters tend to be younger than the rest of the state’s registered electorate and most identify as either Democrat or independent. Only 14 percent of Hispanic registered voters in Arizona identify as Republican. In addition, the analysis projects more than 433,000 Latino voters will cast ballots this November, an increase of 8 percent from the 2012 election.

Ian Danley, director of One Arizona, said he believes the new law banning ballot collection was “intended to reduce the level of voting among the Latino community.” However, he said he’s hopeful that a lawsuit challenging the law will prevent it from going into effect this summer.

A woman walks past a sign directing voters to a polling place in the Phoenix, Arizona in this file photo taken November 2, 2010.JOSHUA LOTT / Reuters

Earlier this month, attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction that would put the ballot-collecting law on hold.

The lawsuit claims the law was aimed largely at Latino, African American and Native American voters who “have relied heavily on community members, organizers, and friends to deliver ballots to the registrar’s office in past elections.” With this new law, these voters “are significantly more likely to have their right to vote abridged or denied in the coming general election,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit also challenges the recent decision to drastically cut the number of polling locations in Maricopa County, the most populated county in Arizona. There were 211 polling locations in Maricopa County for the presidential primary in 2012 but only 60 this year, which resulted in long lines and voters feeling disenfranchised.

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Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the ballot-collecting law is “part of a seemingly coordinated campaign that we are seeing around the country to make voting more difficult.” Her group recently filed another lawsuit challenging the reduction in polling locations in Maricopa County during this year’s presidential primary.

Clarke added that the law banning ballot collection, as well as the reduction in polling locations, would likely not have passed scrutiny under the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2013. It required several states, including Arizona, to submit any changes to voting laws and procedures.

“The Section 5 pre-clearance provision blocked discriminatory voting changes right at the outset,” Clarke said. “However, now we live in a world where we have to keep up with the pace of discriminatory voting changes and be prepared to mount long protracted litigation to contest those actions.”

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