An Arizona plan to tighten voter registration would create a two-tiered voting system in time for next year's elections but affect only several thousand people, some of whom could be denied participation in state and local elections, state officials said Tuesday.
Voting rights activists, however, said that many more eligible voters probably would choose not to participate because of confusion over the new plan, which is expected to be challenged in court.
The new system will essentially have separate voter rolls. Those who registered using a state form and documented their U.S. citizenship will receive a full ballot for federal, state and local elections, and those who registered using a federal form but whose citizenship could not be fully verified would be able to vote only in federal elections.
In a practical sense, just because a potential voter registered using a federal form doesn't automatically exclude that voter from participating in local and state elections, experts and county officials said.
Arizona Atty. Gen. Tom Horne and other officials said the new system, announced on Monday, would help prevent voter fraud. Voting rights activists said it was a political ploy to stop immigrants and minorities from voting.
"This is a knee-jerk reaction on Horne's part … creating two separate voter rolls that need to be maintained and verified and two distinct ballots — both of which will be more costly for taxpayers and burdensome for local election officials," Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said in a statement.
The ACLU was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to overturn an Arizona law requiring documented proof of citizenship.
After that law went into effect in 2005, people who registered to vote using the state form were required to provide an Arizona driver's license, U.S. passport, or birth or naturalization certificate — requirements not necessary on the federal form. Currently, only about 5% of prospective voters register using federal forms; about 95% use state forms.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer upheld that state requirement but ruled that proof of citizenship was not necessary for people who register with a federal form, which requires prospective voters only to say they are citizens and provide a signature and an identification number — such as the last four digits of their Social Security number.
The federal and state forms are processed in the same way to check for voter eligibility, including checking information against the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division database, because driver's licenses there are given only to people who have documented they are U.S. citizens or foreign nationals lawfully in the country.
In Pima County, which includes Tucson, the overwhelming majority of the 500,000 people who registered with federal forms were able to be verified, Pima County Chief Deputy Recorder Chris Roads said. Only about 300 people haven't checked out.
In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its suburbs, about 900 people are affected.
Nothing will really change, said Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, one of the groups seeking to overturn the Arizona requirements.
"What this does is create more confusion for voters in Arizona and it makes it harder to vote," he said.
Roads said the greatest worry would be elderly people who didn't have a current driver's license or who were born in rural areas and may not have a birth certificate.
"In the olden days you didn't have to prove citizenship," said Sue DeArmond, committee chair of the Voter Service at the League of Women Voters of Greater Tucson. "You just went and voted. All you'd have to say is you're a citizen. It really makes it very difficult."