Sweltering Summer Primaries in Arizona Exclude Vulnerable Voters


Editor’s note: The deadline to register to vote is July 5.

Arizona’s primary elections are primarily forgotten.

This year’s content is just a month away, after 12 years of policies that discourage and suppress voter participation.

Since 2010, August primaries have hindered poor, minority, and elderly voters from participating in the democratic process, experts say.

“Arizona has always made it difficult for people of color and people of low-income stature to vote,” Joseph Garcia, executive director at Phoenix-based human rights group Chicanos Por La Causa, told Phoenix New Times on Wednesday.

And in a state where pollsters consider 24 of 30 legislative districts “safe,” meaning noncompetitive in a general election, the primary is the arena in which most elected officials are chosen.

“Calling it a primary is a mistake,” Garcia said. “In most cases, it quite literally is the general election.”

But voters are nowhere to be found, and that, researchers and critics say, is by design.

Arizona’s last primary election was on August 4, 2020. That same week included the hottest day of the year in Phoenix, where temperatures climbed to 118 degrees on July 30.

It was the first primary election since the Arizona Legislature voted to move up the date to the first Tuesday in August, or about three weeks earlier than before.

The average temperature on primary day since 2019 in Phoenix is over 115 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

In 1960, Arizona held its primary election in April. Temperatures were mild and locals weren’t yet scrambling to evade the summer heat.

By 1980, primaries were moved to the fall. Candidates were offered more time to campaign while the electorate was still around to cast ballots on temperate September mornings.

That’s the way it remained until 2010, according to the Arizona Secretary of State, when the state adopted the midsummer primary that we all know and very few love.

Turnout has stalled at around 30 percent ever since.

Then, in 2019, state lawmakers, enacting Senate Bill 1154, inched the election even closer to the hottest day of the year.

The bill narrowly passed both the state House Elections Committee, then the Arizona House of Representatives along party-line votes.

“If we move up the primary three weeks, voting would start in the hottest month of the year,” Representative Athena Salman, a Phoenix Democrat, said in a 2019 House Elections Committee meeting. “I have some concerns about the impact on the older population in my district. They travel to much cooler places during the summer. This would negatively impact their ability to vote in the primary election.”

Representative David Gowan, a Sierra Vista Republican who sponsored the bill, countered that moving the election up would give more time for election officials to set the stage for the imminent general election, and catch errors and process votes from the primary.

So far, it’s not doing much.

FairVote, a nonpartisan electoral reform group, used United States Elections Project data to rank states voting turnout, based on a combination of how many eligible adults register and turn out. Arizona ranked 43rd.

That’s no surprise to Garcia, who authored a pair of state-sponsored research studies in 2018 for Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, outlining the “voter crisis” that centered around the poor timing of Arizona’s primary elections.

“Our primary election system is broken,” he said. “It’s held in the dead of summer when most people are out of town. It’s not a very good time to hold a primary.”

For example, nearly half of Sun City West’s 26,000 residents have already left the state this summer, town spokesperson Rodney Bertram told New Times on Thursday.

In the heat of an August primary, mail-in voting is the preferred method of 90 percent of voters in Arizona. But for how long?  
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In the heat of an August primary, mail-in voting is the preferred method of 90 percent of voters in Arizona. But for how long?

THEPALMER / E+ / Getty Images

On top of that, many independent voters don’t know that they, too, can cast ballots in primary elections, according to Garcia. Until 2018, only registered voters with partisan affiliations were eligible to participate.

Independent voters represent the second-largest voting group in the state, behind only Republicans. At 34 percent of the registered voter population as of April, there are more independents than Democrats (31 percent) in Arizona, according to the Secretary of State.

“If you ask 100 independents, 95 think they cannot vote in the primary even though they can,” Garcia said. “It’s a broken system that the two main parties fight tooth and nail to preserve.”

In 2016, Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell took the blame for infuriating hours-long lines at the polls during the primary election. Independents mistakenly showed up to vote, leading to a surge in provisional ballots, none of which were counted. Purcell blamed the long lines on ill-informed independents.

In 2020, just over 100,000 registered independents in Maricopa County returned one of the party’s primary ballots. There are 1.3 million registered independents in the state.

Registered Democrats and Republicans will automatically receive a ballot-by mail ahead of this year’s primary. Independent voters can request a Republican, Democrat, or Green ballot from their county recorder’s office. The Libertarian Party has a closed primary.

The state is working on getting independent voters back in poll booths and praises the 2019 law moving primaries from the last Tuesday in August to the first Tuesday of the month.

“Having the date move up is helpful for us to prepare our voter education guide and candidate debates,” Gina Roberts, voter education director at the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, told New Times on Wednesday. “When the primary was later in the month, we had a very short turnaround time in regard to producing our voter guide and coordinating our debates before early voting started.”

Whether you accept the motives are well-intentioned or cynical, the effects are the same.

Voter suppression is nothing new in the Grand Canyon State. Just this year, state Republicans mulled imposing even more voter restrictions that would negatively affect minority and low-income voters.

State Senator Wendy Rogers, a Flagstaff Republican, introduced a bill this year that would eliminate mail-in voting in Arizona — the preferred method of 90 percent of voters in 2020, including most Republicans.

It failed, but voting rights advocates like Garcia are still worried.

“The one good thing we ever did is in jeopardy,” he said. “Mail-in voting is the great equalizer. You don’t have to stand in line in the heat. You don’t have to worry about mobility issues.”

In 2020, Illinois held its primary election in March. This year, Louisiana is holding its primary in November. Other states like Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island will hold theirs in the fall.

According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, most of the other states with August primaries this year are not sweltering, desertic states like Arizona, but rather cooler northern states like Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Washington.

“We could do that if we wanted to,” Garcia said, referring to moving the primary election to either the spring or fall.

But state leaders have other ideas.

If you’re looking to vote in the Arizona primary on August 2, you’ll need to register to vote by July 5.

As Garcia said, “Celebrate the 4th, but circle the 5th.” It’s the only way to engage the 70 percent of Arizona voters who typically skip the primary election.

As other politicos have often said: “Voters don’t decide elections. Nonvoters do.”