A group of progressive Latina leaders are doing the real work of ensuring a free and fair election.
Protesters crying foul over closely watched vote counts have rallied outside tabulation centers in Phoenix for the past several days, responding to President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud in the race for the White House.
The protests came as elections officials in several states where counts show Democrat Joe Biden ahead said the anger vented outside their doors had left them worried about the safety of their workers.
But angry protesters aren’t the only ones keep a close eye on Arizona’s elections: a group of Latina leaders, including former county and state prosecutor January Contreras, attended a Zoom call with two Arizona lawyers to talk about election integrity and strategies to combat voter suppression tactics.
Contreras said there’s no question it’s an exciting time in Arizona. “We are breaking records for early voting, which is very exciting.”
Arizona officials are familiar with early voting. They know mail-in ballots. It’s something that the state has a lot of history with and is good at. “We have county recorders and a Secretary of State in office who are committed to all voters voting and those are things that can’t be underestimated…this year, ” Contreras said.
Contreras went on to say that there are a lot of organized forces that want to suppress the vote. She introduced Roopali Desai and Anne Chapman, both of whom she described as respected attorneys in Arizona who have been selflessly working on these issues behind the scenes without any fanfare.
Desai talked about the Arizona Voter Empowerment Task Force, a loose coalition of advocates and lawyers in Arizona that started when the consent decree was stricken down by the US Supreme Court in January 2018. The consent decree, in place for many years, basically protected marginalized populations from intimidation at the polls and other voter suppression tactics.
There was suddenly heightened awareness that these institutional protections that had been in place for the last few elections were no longer there, just as we were heading into a highly divisive—and heated—election.
When the consent decree lifted, Desai and Chapman said they were flooded with information about a $70 million-plus national strategy focused on voter suppression and a disinformation campaign.
“There is this false narrative that the election can’t be trusted because there was widespread voter fraud intended to rig the election in November,” Desai said. “Therefore, the only way to vote safely and securely is in person where the process can be monitored. And it’s really important to recognize that this is a false narrative, that there really aren’t any facts to support this notion that the election can’t be trusted, that there’s widespread voter fraud.”
Free and Fair Elections
Since 2016, voter confidence on fair elections has declined from 60% to 45%. “That’s significant, and it’s really a problem,” Desai admits. “All of a sudden, what you see is all people have to do is talk about this to make it a reality, when in fact the facts don’t support this narrative.”
She said they are very concerned that not just private organizations like the Republican National Convention can now go and have poll servers and folks who are at the polling places, which the consent decree previously barred for many years. “It’s not just private actors, but we have institutional entities that are participating in the hyper-criminalization of voting activity which is very problematic,” Desai said.”
In August 2019, the Arizona Attorney General established an “Election Integrity Unit.” Chapman said it was funded and staffed with a woman who formerly ran a Verify the Vote arm in Arizona, an anti-voting group.
“They have been pursuing people who they claim are committing election fraud and they have a list of what their different prosecutions have been throughout the state,” Chapman explained. “They often do it in coordination and consultation with different county attorneys, particularly in more rural counties, but what you’re seeing the voting fraud that they’re talking about and that they’re prosecuting in order to then verify the fact that there are voting fraud or things like a college student who registered to vote in their home state and then moves and registers to vote somewhere else.”
A Nationwide Effort
It’s not just happening in Arizona. In fact, the Attorney General’s Election Integrity Unit just received an additional $500,000 in funding from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to basically focus on this overcriminalization. Chapman said there’s even a press arm that allows people to file an election complaint online. “And there is an Election Integrity group within the FBI as a smaller group of people, but you’re seeing them kind of assigned out for states,” Chapman said. “Traditionally, what that means is that DOJ is protecting people who are trying to vote. But in this situation, given the rhetoric that we’re seeing coming out of the department, it’s unclear what they’re intending to do with that manpower.”
Desai said Arizona continued to be one of the top five states where people were coming in to volunteer their time to do poll monitoring and observation for the RNC and other groups that wanted to perpetuate the concept of fraud. She pondered, “Are they starting to look into things like voter registrations and double voting and college students who have moved, especially during the pandemic? We’ve tried to identify the top issues that these poll observers and legal challengers are focusing on and focusing our attention in turn to responding to that.”
The Arizona Voter Empowerment Task Force wants to send a message to institutions that they are going to fight back. They want people to know how to get representation for individuals who may be the subject of hyper-criminalization of lawful voting activity this election cycle.
From Desai and Chapman’s perspectives, the most important thing that we can do as advocates in our community is to not amplify the disinformation, and to not repeat or reinforce baseless accusations about fraud.
This coalition of lawyers are ready to spring into action. Depending on what the need is, they are ready to assign lawyers to individuals or organizations that need representation at no cost. They said they don’t want people to feel like they can’t reach out and get representation if they need it.
“If it’s a grandmother in Yuma, she’s going to get a lawyer if you start investigating her for double voting, or a voter registration fraud, just as it would be something if there was a high-profile politician in Maricopa County who was being investigated,” Desai explained.
The call with the two lawyers with the Voter Empowerment Task Force was organized by Supermajority, who has made over 40,000 phone calls, texted over 685,000 people and sent more than 52,000 letters.
Paloma Arroyo, with Supermajority, revealed their volunteers have hosted over 638 events so far and have contacted over 6.8 million women to get out the vote.