Today's Issues

Choices, mechanics, and competition: The many facets of voting in Arizona

August 8, 2019

By Matt Ellsworth

Voting graphic

It’s easy to get misty-eyed about voting. But it is just as important to be clear-eyed about the strengths and weaknesses of our systems. Emotion must be matched by dollars and innovations to have voter participation by as many Arizonans as possible.

By Nancy Welch
Arizona Center for Civic Leadership

Not since 1982 has turnout in Arizona for a midterm election been as high as it was in November 2018, according to data on the state maintained since 1974.

Participation has been attributed primarily to post-2016 election energy, a hotly contested U.S. Senate race, responses to such state and national events as #RedforEd and school shootings, and effective voter mobilization, especially of young people, women, and Latinx.

Turnout in 2020 is predicted to be as large or larger. To support participation and take some of the mystery out of the many facets of voting, Choices, Mechanics, and Competition—The Many Facets of Voting in Arizona provides the basics on who’s who, patterns, and issues.

The U.S. history of voting has been one of moving from exclusive to inclusive, voice votes to secret ballots, monolithic political parties to many players, and acceptance of discrimination to working to eliminate it. Policymakers now have rated election systems as “critical infrastructure.” Even so, tension between competing visions and interests remains. One person’s “suppression” is another’s “protection.” Motives for proposed changes are more and less pure with significantly little agreement among factions.

In addition, the informed voter has been idealized and idolized. Diversity, fragmentation of communities and media, a decrease in trust of government, campaign-finance changes, and more polarization and competition continue to alter the environment. Voting still denotes an individual act, but public systems are central to making those choices count and understanding them collectively.

Voting practices are not simple, static, or uniform

Voting experiences and mechanics are far from simple, static, or uniform. The federal government, states, counties, municipalities, and civic organizations play various parts in many types of elections, especially with the rise of real and imagined concerns about access and security. Administrative choices, court decisions, and legislation over decades have produced a decentralized public/private complex that differs from state to state.

For example, Arizona has online voter registration, early voting, a Permanent Early Voting List for mail-in ballots, and no-excuse absentee voting. However, due to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Arizona also has a unique “bifurcated” voter-registration system that requires voters to prove citizenship in order to vote in state and local elections but has no such requirement for voting in federal elections.

State-level practices to make voting easier and more fair

Arizona voting at the state and local level: Who’s who

Those on the front lines of election administration and voter engagement include:

Secretary of State

The elected secretary of state (SOS), among many other duties, serves as Arizona’s chief elections officer. The election role includes a myriad of responsibilities. For example, the SOS oversees election guidance and policies for counties and municipalities, campaign finance for statewide and legislative candidates, verification of initiatives and referenda, and certification of election results. The SOS also plans for, receives, and distributes federal funds for such items as new voting equipment, as was provided by the national Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2003.

In addition, the SOS maintains the federally required single voter registration list and updates it nightly with data from counties. Arizonans can register and voters can track their ballots through the SOS’s office, too. Voting machines are tested prior to every election. Allegations of campaign finance violations are reviewed in conjunction with the attorney general. Historical data on registration and turnout are also available.

County recorders and county boards of supervisors

Throughout Arizona, county recorders tend to be the “faces” of elections, but county supervisors also have critical functions, since state statutes divide responsibilities between the two elected offices. Recorders oversee voter registration and, generally, the documentation of voting, including early voting records, while supervisors, usually through directors, tend to equipment, staff, and polling operations. Some county boards (including Maricopa County until recent changes), assign nearly all election duties to the recorder. Other county boards, such as Pima and Pinal, have appointed elections directors who work closely with the recorders. Recently, the Yuma County Board of Supervisors delegated elections duties to the Yuma County Recorder’s Office, which then hired an elections director.

Citizens Clean Elections Commission

Arizona voters passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act in 1998 to establish public funding and matching programs for candidates for state-level offices, voter education, and oversight of campaign finances and independent expenditures. Clean Elections is administered by a nonpartisan commission and derives its funds mostly from a 10 percent surcharge on civil penalties and criminal fines. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the matching-funds formula in 2011.

Since that Supreme Court decision, candidates may still use public financing, but the dollars are substantially less, even after an inflation adjustment. Many candidates now choose to raise funds directly from donors, rather than use Clean Elections. The Act also requires Clean Elections to deliver a voter-education guide to every household with an Arizona registered voter. This results in roughly 1.8 million guides being delivered for every statewide election. Additional voter-education information can be obtained on the Clean Elections website.

Civic, service, and political organizations

Scores of private, nonprofit and social-welfare organizations engage Arizonans in election after election in all facets of voting, including registration, information, and turnout. Others organize voter drives for a single cycle. For example, One Arizona is a coalition of 17 organizations involved in the gamut of voting activities. The Republican and Democratic parties are also players in registration, candidate development, fundraising, and voter turnout. School and community civic education to develop a voting habit has been revitalized recently. Inspire U.S. and Tomorrow We Vote Action, for example, work with Arizona high-school students to ensure they understand the importance of voting and follow through on registering.

Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC)

Voter participation is always affected by who is running and what is on the ballot, which, in turn, are influenced by the makeup of voting districts at every level. Boundaries for Arizona’s congressional and legislative districts are now drawn by a five-member bipartisan commission, instead of by the legislature, due to a voter-approved ballot measure in 2000. Commission members are appointed by the speaker of the house and president of the senate after each decennial census. Appointments for the next IRC are expected by January 2021. Working with new counts from the 2020 Census and public input, these leaders will create boundaries so that districts include an almost equal number of residents, as required by the Arizona and United States Constitutions.

In addition, the Arizona Constitution notes districts must be “geographically compact and contiguous” and “respect communities of interest,” following “visible geographic features, city, town, and county boundaries, and undivided census tracts,” all “to the extent practicable.” The constitution favors making districts competitive “where to do so would create no significant detriment to the other goals.”  Redistricting is a contentious process, since it has big implications for future elections.

Selected Arizona Voting and Elections Milestones
1912 »   Arizona Statehood. Women’s suffrage approved by initiative.
1948 »   Harrison v. Laveen, Native Americans win right to vote in Arizona.
1975 »   Arizona becomes “covered” under the 1965 Voting Rights Act and subject to “preclearance” to remedy and prevent discrimination.
1982 »   Arizona Voter Registration by Driver’s License passed by voters.
1998 »   Arizona Voting in Primary passed by voters, allowing “independents” to vote in primary elections.
1998 »   Voter Protection Act passage limiting changes to voter-approved measures passed by voters.
2000 »   Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission approved by voters, first U.S. state to do so.
2004 »   Voter ID and proof of citizenship requirements passed by voters.
2007 »   Permanent Early Voting List established by legislation.
2011 »   SCOTUS Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett strikes down Clean Elections matching funds formula.
2016 »   Prohibition on collection of early ballots by others, except family members primarily, approved by legislature.
2018 »   Primary election date moved to first Tuesday in August from last Tuesday by legislature.


Arizona voting participation patterns—familiar but shifting

Despite residents telling researchers that voting is important, Arizona has long lagged among states on voter participation, although it has been a leader in redistricting and some aspects of elections. Some observers have blamed Arizona’s rapid growth for a weak civic culture. Others point to outdated rules and participation requirements, such as early pre-election registration deadlines, identification requirements at the polls, and late-summer primaries as causes. Not surprisingly, increasing participation has long been a goal of policymakers, civic leaders, and activists and a motivation behind such measures as early voting and “motor voter” registration, which Arizona has had since 1982.

A comparison of Arizona's population, its registered voters, and votes cast, from 1998-2018

Sentiments among Arizona voters tend to reflect national ones. Studies show that Arizonans, and Americans, often vote because of personal responsibility, habit, community norms, peer expectations, self-expression, and a desire to belong. For those for whom voting is a sacred duty or simply a long-term custom, it is hard to fathom why many don’t participate.

But there are reasons. Notable concerns that nonvoting citizens disclose include too little time, their votes not counting, illness or disability, busyness, conflicting schedules, complexity, and dissatisfaction with candidates and politics. Voter experience matters, too. For example, long lines and confusion about polling places (as in 2016 and 2018 in Maricopa County) may turn off participants for future elections.

Research reveals that such processes as vote by mail, same-day registration, and automatic registration can improve voter participation by providing more time and flexibility. However, smooth elections, regardless of form, depend on a combination of often byzantine processes all going according to plan.

Different definitions for the electorate make voting results confusing, too. For example, the “voting-age population” (VAP) includes everyone in the state 18 years of age and older. The “voting-eligible population” (VEP) refers to those 18 and older who can vote, meaning chiefly that they are U.S. citizens. “Registered voters” have signed up officially and maintain their status as they move within the state. For example, in 2018, Arizona’s turnout among registered voters was 65 percent. That was 49 percent of the voting-eligible population, however, putting Arizona 33rd in the nation. Especially in redistricting work, “citizen voting-age population” (CVAP) is used along with VEP.

A map of 2018 election turnout rates, by county, across the United States

Election officials know who has voted and the data reported at registration, but not who/what individuals choose when they vote. Each source of data about voters—from the U.S. Census to official state elections offices to interest groups and researchers—reports on voting in different ways. The key to understanding voter participation is recognizing that patterns are consistent across different definitions and sources, rather than looking for the same numbers.

Researchers, campaigners, and pollsters increasingly use “voter files” to study participation and model future turnout. Voter files start with official voter registration lists, which have basic contact information. These files can be supplemented with data—usually purchased—on whether individuals voted in previous elections. Generally, commercial vendors then add data from other public sources, such as the U.S. Census and credit rating agencies, to create more detailed pictures of the electorate.

The importance of “Big data” is as evident in voting as it is in consumer contexts. Also, mobile technology has become integral to participation and campaigns, with widespread use of tools such as OutVote and RumbleUp. Fine-grained information from many sources drives analyses among those wanting to increase participation, design campaign strategies, and understand the nation’s civic health. Republican and Democratic candidates may obtain voter files for free from their respective parties, while independent candidates must pay for them, which represents a substantial cost.

More Arizonans don’t identify with a political party

Nearly all Arizonans used to register as Republicans or Democrats or as members of smaller parties. Now, “no party affiliation” (NPA) is common. “Unaffiliated” voters are often characterized as “independents.” However, research has shown that most NPA voters lean toward one major party or the other.

Comparative statistics on Party Registration in Arizona in 2000 and 2019

Participation lags in primaries and midterms in comparison to presidential years

Midterms generally have lower turnout than presidential years, although 2018 approached the presidential participation level. Candidates, election administrators, and campaign operatives are trying to determine now if 2018 is a new normal or an outlier, especially among young and Latinx voters.

Many more minority voters are turning out

Arizona’s minority populations’ participation has lagged white turnout traditionally. However, that pattern is shifting nationally and in Arizona, especially among the Latinx (the state’s largest minority population) and Asian-American communities. In Arizona, 23.4 percent of the eligible voter population is Hispanic. Arizona is now fifth among states with 1,145,000 eligible Latinx voters. With a young population increasingly of voting age, and with increasing mobilization, the Latinx community is coming into its own. From 2014 (an election with low turnout even by midterm standards) to 2018, participation in Arizona among registered Latinx approximately doubled, according to research by Univision, and young voters accounted for much of the change. Early voting also increased dramatically. Estimates reported by Univision point toward double-digit growth in 2020 for Latinx. At the same time, African American women continue to be leaders in turnout in Arizona and the U.S.

A national map of Hispanic share of voting in 2018

Older voters outnumber younger—Younger voters have historically ceded political clout to their elders, who for years have turned out in the highest numbers. However, youth participation has been inching up for years and grew dramatically in 2018. Data calculated by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement showed an increase in youth turnout of 16 percentage points in Arizona. “The total share of votes cast by youth nearly doubled (from just 6.3% in 2014 to 11.5% in 2018), demonstrating an increase in young people’s influence on the election.” But age is only one factor. Those with higher incomes and more education also tend to have more participation. Age, income, and education have traditionally combined for influence.

Women now outnumber men at the polls

Arizonans extended the vote to women in 1912 and the U.S. followed that lead in 1920. For decades, women lagged men in turnout. That has changed in recent elections, with women now outpacing men in Arizona and the nation. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that women continued to vote more than men in 2018—”just as they have in every midterm election since 1998.” A 3-percentage point gap—55 percent of women and 52 percent of men voted, according to the Current Population Survey.”

Millions more Arizonans could participate

Turnout in the millions sounds impressive, but many more Arizonans could participate. Arizona’s VEP is approximately 4.9 million people. Some 3.71 million Arizonans are registered, with 2.41 million voting in the 2018 general election. Arizona has a lot of room for improvement, especially in the primaries, when only about a third of registered voters participated.

Take Flight campaign encourages new voters

Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission - Take Flight Initiative - 18 in 2018Eligible 18-29-year olds have represented the smallest group of registered voters in Arizona in recent elections. The Citizens Clean Elections Commission’s Take Flight initiative—”18 in 2018”—targeted young people for the midterm election.

The Commission created a building mural linked to the Shazam augmented-reality platform as well as a special webpage and used the power of video and social media to allow new voters, especially those turning 18, to register and share their experiences via a secure smartphone app. The Commission’s work increased youth turnout significantly and earned a prestigious national PRWeek Award in the “Best in Public Sector” category.


Arizona’s voting future

What does Arizona’s voting future hold? The answer to that question depends on:

Cultures and connections

More Arizonans are now born in the state than in earlier decades, and they may have deeper roots and greater civic devotion. Civic education is coming back into the spotlight, while Clean Elections and One Arizona, to name just two of hundreds of entities, are finding new ways to register and engage voters. Momentum is also gathering behind mechanisms such as automatic voter registration and same-day registration, that have been discussed in Arizona for some time and tried in a variety of states. If new opportunities and more voters make a significant difference in Arizona’s traditionally low-attainment culture, the state could see much greater participation, which could affect political norms and policy choices.

Stats, maps, and national trends

Having moved further beyond the Great Recession, Arizona is again one of the fastest-growing states. The 2020 Census is expected to award the state another Congressional seat to reset Arizona’s national proportional representation. As new district boundaries are drawn, the state’s growth overall and in specific groups, such as the Latinx community, will affect opportunities for candidates and ballot measures. National trends will continue to impact Arizona, too. Already for 2020, for example, recreational marijuana is expected to be heading for the ballot, as is a measure for automatic voter registration.

Tech, big data, and dollars

“I can bank on my phone. Why can’t I use it to vote?” The reality is that voting is more complex in some ways than even financial services. Plus, administrators must deal with old equipment and insufficient resources to replace machines or create secure innovations. The threat of election hacking by foreign governments is only expected to grow, even though the decentralization of state and local systems offers a safeguard. Whether via new technologies or returning to older but more secure methods, elections administrators will be hard-pressed to meet the electorate’s expectations and avert bad-actor incursions with tight budgets.

Mobilization effectiveness

In 2018, youth, women, and Latinx participation growth was noteworthy. In future elections, other groups may similarly increase their participation. Some observers see Arizona turning “purple,” after decades of being “red.” The future belongs, in part, to the best mobilizers, along with public policies impacting processes and security.

It’s easy to get misty-eyed about voting, because it is central to governance and many Americans’ views of themselves. But it is just as important to be clear-eyed about the strengths and weaknesses of our systems, and what will enable us to build on the past—or create new problems. Emotion must be matched by dollars and innovations to have voter participation by as many Arizonans as possible.