Arizona's attack on voting rights: It's part of a long and ugly tradition

Armed goons are reportedly harassing Arizona voters — it's a new twist in the Grand Canyon State's nasty history

By Heather Digby Parton


Published October 26, 2022 9:58AM (EDT)

Supporters o US President Donald Trump protest in front of the Maricopa County Election Department while votes are being counted in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 6, 2020. (OLIVIER TOURON/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters o US President Donald Trump protest in front of the Maricopa County Election Department while votes are being counted in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 6, 2020. (OLIVIER TOURON/AFP via Getty Images)

Contrary to popular myth, the United States was not founded on the concept of "one person, one vote." In fact, there isn't a right to vote enshrined in the Constitution at all, a fact which the late Justice Antonin Scalia made sure to mention in his notorious Bush v. Gore opinion that decided the 2000 election. Managing elections was at first left entirely up to the states, which meant that in most places, most of the time, only white male landowners had the franchise. It took several decades, until the Andrew Jackson era, before essentially all white men were allowed to vote, let alone anyone else. (A few property-owning African Americans were permitted to vote in Northern cities before the Civil War, but no women could vote anywhere until Wyoming enacted universal suffrage in 1869.) 

After the Civil War, the end of slavery and the 14th Amendment, all Black men were officially granted citizenship, but very few were allowed to vote before the enactment of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which specified that the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." That led to the brief period of Reconstruction, which saw Black men not just voting across the South but also elected to high office: Sixteen African Americans served in Congress (including two U.S. senators) and several hundred served in state legislatures. But by the 1880s all that was over, as Southern whites (with the federal government's permission) launched the systematic disenfranchisement, vote suppression and voter intimidation of the Jim Crow era, meaning that virtually no Black people in the South could vote until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

But it's a mistake to believe that voter suppression only happened in the Deep South — or only happened in the distant past. Over the past 20 years we've seen a huge resurgence of such tactics in most states run by Republicans. In Florida, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Maryland, Indiana and Texas, for example, GOP officials have purged voter rolls, limited early voting and mail-in ballots, established "caging" lists, spread voting disinformation and enacted onerous voter-ID laws and ballot requirements. Just this week, a pair of notorious GOP dirty tricksters were convicted of felony telecommunications fraud in Ohio for spreading false information by robocall in 2020.

Most of those tactics, primarily (although not exclusively) targeting Black and Latino voters, were assumed to be illegal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — at least until the conservative-majority Supreme Court struck down huge portions of the act in their 2013 ruling from Tennessee, Shelby County v. Holder. The justices held, in an astonishing denial of reality, that voter suppression was no longer much of a problem in the South (or anywhere else) so many of the Voting Rights Act's provisions were no longer necessary.

Last year the high court outdid itself with the decision in Arizona's Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee case, upholding a ban on what they called "ballot harvesting" — that is, collecting and turning in mail ballots by anyone other than a voter's immediate family members or caregivers — and allowing states to toss out any ballot cast in the incorrect precinct. Republicans are effectively creating updated Jim Crow-style voting restrictions all over the country, with the support of a supermajority on the Supreme Court. 

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Arizona, however, must be regarded as a special case. While many states had discriminatory laws of one kind or another until fairly recently, Arizona has been on the voter suppression bandwagon all along, and stands as the leading example so far in 2022. That "live and let live" libertarian spirit of the Southwest seems to have led conservatives in the Grand Canyon State to a culture of election intimidation that just won't quit.

I've noted in several columns over the years the famous Arizona suppression scheme from the early 1960s known as Operation Eagle Eye. It's particularly famous because the late William Rehnquist, chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1985 to 2005, was an eager participant early in his career.

The New York Times reported this during Rehnquist's confirmation process in 1986:

Republicans say that in the 1960, 1962 and 1964 campaigns, he helped plan and direct a poll-watching program that was intended to block what Republicans called illegal attempts by Democrats to win elections by bringing large numbers of unqualified black and Hispanic residents to the polls shortly before they closed.

They also had a special trick:

A Phoenix lawyer and longtime Democratic activist, who said he did not want to be identified because he expected Justice Rehnquist to be confirmed as Chief Justice, said that at the 1962 election he was photographed by William Rehnquist as he and another Democrat approached a voting precinct in a minority community.

''We asked him what he was doing, or perhaps he just told us, 'I'm taking pictures of everybody,' '' the lawyer recalled. ''We asked if that wasn't harassment. He just laughed and said, 'There's no film in the camera.' ''

That sounds familiar, doesn't it? We are getting daily reports of armed, masked yahoos dressed in tactical gear staking out ballot boxes in Arizona filming people dropping off their ballots.

The sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes the city of Phoenix and has a population of 4.5 million, said he has been forced to increase security at drop boxes so voters can feel safe dropping off their ballots. This "monitoring" is being done at the behest of "voter integrity" groups that have been gathering in the state and around the country, claiming they are training "poll watchers" to make sure that the election is on the up and up. It doesn't sound as if that's their actual goal.

This is voter intimidation plain and simple, just as it was when Rehnquist stood there taking pictures of voters (whether or not there was film in the camera). And it's being endorsed, of course, by extremist election denier Mark Finchem, the Republican nominee for Arizona secretary of state, who tweeted this week, "[George] Soros does not want people to watch their shenanigans. We must watch all drop boxes because they do not have live cameras on them streaming to the public for people to ensure there is no fraud in the process." That's the man who will be in charge of Arizona's elections if he wins the election on Nov. 8. (Notice the cutting-edge MAGA touch of sneaking in a little old-fashioned antisemitism. It's all the rage these days.)

Citizens who are simply driving up to drop off their ballots are confronted with these people who record them doing it, photograph their license plates and in some cases even follow them in an apparent effort to figure out where they live. Several complaints have been forwarded to the Department of Justice and two lawsuits have already been filed. Whether John Roberts' Supreme Court will agree that this is unconstitutional remains to be seen, but I wouldn't hold my breath. After all, the right-wing justices upheld Arizona's ludicrous ban on anyone dropping off ballots but their own, which was filed by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich and another Republican election denier

This ridiculous obsession with nonexistent ballot stuffing at drop boxes is what formed the so-called basis of the thoroughly debunked claims of fraud in Dinesh D'Souza's "2000 Mules" movie, which has inspired millions of Trumpers to believe the 2020 election was stolen. These amateur surveillance efforts are being organized by a rogue's gallery of right-wing groups with anti-government views and associations with white nationalism, including the Oath Keepers, True the Vote, Lions of Liberty and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.

You can always count on Arizona right-wingers to be in the vanguard of any innovative attempt at voter suppression and intimidation. They've been at this for decades and are way ahead of the rest of the country. They once put one of their own in the chief justice's chair — and the current Supreme Court has their back all the way.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Arizona Commentary Elections Republicans Supreme Court Vote Suppression Voting Rights