right to vote
Photo illustration by Marguerite Casey Foundation

Equal Voice

The Nation’s Big Fight for the Right to Vote

February 27, 2020

By Terry Collins

Family-led organizations are engaging this year’s elections and Census 2020 through civic outreach efforts so more voices can be heard. To elevate these stories, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice is launching #Engage2020, a special series.      

Petra Falcon’s phones never stop ringing.

Usually, it’s her mobile phone while she’s out, but even in those rare moments when she’s sitting in her office, there’s often a phone ringing.

Falcon is the executive director of Promise Arizona, a Phoenix-based nonprofit organization centered on improving life for the Latinx community. For more than 25 years, Falcon has worked to expand voting rights for the state’s most vulnerable populations.

Not even a major legal victory spearheaded by Falcon’s organization, the League of Women Voters and other Arizona nonprofits is slowing her down. Nearly two years after the nonprofits filed a federal lawsuit against Arizona’s secretary of state, that state will now automatically update voter registration information when a resident changes the address on a driver’s license.

In 2018, Petra Falcon of Promise Arizona "said she and other voting-rights advocates in Arizona long suspected there were voting problems in the state, and they had to take action before the pivotal 2020 election."

That type of action is part of Falcon’s mission this election season: Making sure every eligible Arizona voter can do so.

“I think more than ever, the voters need to have a voice, and one of the first things to do is register to vote and then go vote,” said Falcon one busy Wednesday morning. “We need to hear from everybody. It’s our right.”

The lawsuit in Arizona comes more than two decades after Congress passed the extensive National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), better known as the Motor Voter Act, to make it easier for Americans to vote. The law is designed to help millions of Americans register to vote for the first time or update their registration.

Congress passed the law in 1993 after discovering that discriminatory and unfair registration laws and procedures across the country were severely disproportionate and dramatically reduced voter participation among disadvantaged groups, including women and people of color.

The NVRA requires that states accept voter registration applications by mail and provide registration applications at motor vehicle department offices, military recruitment centers and all government buildings providing services to lower-income citizens and those with disabilities.

Yet, many states don’t follow federal law and squabble over who’s eligible to vote.

There are 29 states in the U.S. – including California, New Jersey and Virginia – that have introduced at least 188 new bills to expand voting rights, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York City-based nonpartisan law and public policy institute.

The expansion includes making voter registration and absentee voting more accessible, as well as prioritizing election security and restoring voting privileges to those who have served sentences for felony convictions. The Brennan Center estimates there have been at least 471 of these bills introduced before state legislatures in the last two years.

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Phoenix-based Promise Arizona is among the many family-led community organizations in the U.S. that are encouraging people to vote in 2020. Photo courtesy of Promise Arizona

Lawmakers in 15 primarily Republican states have put forth at least 35 bills that would make it harder to vote by adding stricter identification requirements, the Brennan Center reports. At least 57 similar restrictive election-related bills have been introduced nationwide in the last year.

Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections program, said the 2020 election matters to a lot of people.

“There is this strong belief through research and past turnouts that voter registration is going to be high,” Perez said. “There are states we are watching closely, including Arizona, Texas and Florida that have undertaken new laws and changes, and voters are getting confused about them.”

A legal battle about voter rights continues in the critical swing-state battleground of Florida. In 2018, more than 60 percent of the state’s voters approved Amendment 4, a change to the state’s constitution, which restores the right to vote to more than 1.4 million felons who completed their sentences and refer to themselves as returning citizens.

Yet, the amendment is hotly debated nationwide, widely seen as one of the most significant expansions of voting rights in modern American history.

However, months after voters had their say, Florida’s Republican-dominated state Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a law saying those with felony convictions have to pay back all fines, fees and restitution before being granted the right to vote.

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From left, Pri Paw, Priki Dee, Chris Sunderlin and Par Der Wae leave the Parkway Center after voting in November 2016 in Utica, New York. Pri Paw, Priki Dee and Par Der Wae are refugees. Photo by Tina Russell of the Observer-Dispatch via The Associated Press

The Florida Supreme Court backed the law. The state’s high court concluded in an advisory opinion in January that legal and financial obligations are a part of the requirements to vote again.

DeSantis tweeted: “Voting is a privilege that should not be taken lightly, and I am obligated to faithfully implement Amendment 4 as it is defined.”

Critics slammed the law approved by the state Legislature, saying it was a strategic move by Republicans to change what voters wanted, flat-out block new voters and those from vulnerable communities. Although there’s a clause that allows fees to be waived, only Democrat-led counties tend to acknowledge it.

That wasn’t enough for 17 people with felony convictions, who, along with the Brennan Center and other nonprofits, sued the state of Florida to abolish the fees law. Florida is currently one of 11 states (Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia) to introduce bills that would give people with criminal convictions expanded rights for casting ballots.

The lawsuit in Florida all but remained idle in the system until a federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled on Feb. 19 that the law is unconstitutional.

We will continue to press on an[d] maintain focus on what we have control over; registering and engaging any returning citizen who wants to participate in democracy.
Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC)

A three-judge panel ruled that the fines violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. They also said it was “undeniable” that the requirement unfairly punished low-income people with convictions as more affluent people would be allowed to vote because they could pay the fines.

“This punishment is linked not to their culpability, but rather to the exogenous fact of their wealth,” the judges wrote.

The judges also agreed to temporarily put the law on pause until a final ruling can be determined. DeSantis says he will appeal it.

A decision may not come in time for returning voters hoping to cast a ballot in Florida’s primary on March 17.

“We don’t want to create an environment where people think this applies to them, and it’s smooth sailing now,” Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), said in a Facebook Live video after the ruling. The coalition spearheaded the Amendment 4 campaign but has not participated in any lawsuits. “We know that this legal battle is far from over.”

Meade served time for felony convictions and is now one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2019. He set up a fund to help felons pay their fines and fees, and recently said on Twitter: “We will continue to press on an[d] maintain focus on what we have control over; registering and engaging any returning citizen who wants to participate in democracy.”

A trial is scheduled in April on the voting rights battle for returning citizens in Florida, but there’s a strong possibility that the case could make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

More Challenges to Voter Rights

Much of the ongoing voter rights battles in the U.S. has to do with voter registration.

At least 10 states are looking to add “auto voter registration” (AVR), a procedure that registers eligible voters automatically unless they decide to opt-out, according to the Brennan Center. New York state recently passed AVR, and Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia and Washington state have introduced legislation that will either implement or strengthen AVR policies.

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Noel Williams talks about Florida's Amendment 4 and the right to vote in September 2018 in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood. Her voter engagement work was in conjunction with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC). Marguerite Casey Foundation/Equal Voice News photo by Brad Wong

In terms of same-day voter registration, seven states have introduced bills that would allow voters to register on Election Day.

Twelve states are seeking early in-person voting, and at least eight states want to ease voter ID laws.

Proposed Voter Rights Restrictions

Voting rights advocates are concerned about efforts to supposedly purge non-citizens from voter rolls in key states, including Florida, New Jersey and Texas. And, there’s worry about proposed bills that could prevent third-party groups from helping voters, including the elderly and those with disabilities.

“Obviously, we’re very concerned about that,” said Perez of the Brennan Center. “We’ve seen legislators trying to make it hard for third-party groups to register voters.”

Preserving Arizona’s Votes

In 2018, Falcon said she and other voting-rights advocates in Arizona long suspected there were voting problems in the state, and they had to take action before the pivotal 2020 election.

So, they filed a lawsuit against then-Secretary of State Michele Reagan alleging the Arizona Department of Transportation wasn’t providing residents with federally mandated voter registration services during their change-of-address filings.

The inaction caused thousands of residents to not appear on voter rolls when they showed up to vote, either because their records still had their old addresses or their ballots were sent to their former homes.

During a hearing in September 2018, lawyers who sued the state said Reagan’s staff admitted likely errors.

Since 2016, the voter registrations of nearly 390,000 Arizona residents were not automatically updated when those voters changed the address on their driver’s licenses, as mandated by federal law, according to the lawsuit.

Lawyers representing the voters believe the number might be higher and could date back to before the National Voting Rights Act took effect.

Nearly two years later, major voting reforms were reached as part of a legal settlement agreement between the advocacy groups, their lawyers and current Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and the state transportation department.

Beginning on March 1, the state transportation department must collect a monthly tally of complete voter registrations forwarded to the secretary of state, changes of addresses by the state Department of Motor Vehicles and the number of times an individual chose to opt-out of voter registration.

The transportation department must then report that information to the secretary of state monthly and to the lawyers who filed suit every three months. And beginning next month, the secretary of state must either provide to the lawyers or post on its website a report that includes the collected information and any new or updated voting rights policies.

Sounds like a lot of changes? Tell that to Falcon, the head of Promise Arizona, who said she’s cautiously optimistic the settlement will bring quick change to ensure citizens’ voting rights.

“Why should we have to go to court to tell the state you’re violating our rights?” Falcon said. “I’m glad we won because it shows all of the hard work we’ve been doing, and more importantly, protects the voters of Arizona.”

The Brennan Center’s Perez has some advice for voters from all walks of life.

“Don’t be deturbed by some people who try to stop you from voting,” she said. “The vast majority of Americans aren’t going to have a problem with exercising your right to vote. And, if there’s a problem, know there are those who are willing to fight with you.”


Terry Collins is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared in Fortune, The Associated Press, Bloomberg Businessweek and CNET. Follow him on Twitter at @terryscollins. In 2019, he wrote the Equal Voice article, “Black Census Project Shows You Can’t Take Black Voters for Granted.” Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice stories can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

The Nation’s Big Fight for the Right to Vote