In Rejecting Voter ID Measure, Arizonans Bucked History and Surprised Advocates
Observers suspect that the usual conservative strategy—talk up voter fraud to justify voter ID laws—was dragged down by election deniers elsewhere on the ballot.
Alex Burness, | December 8, 2022
History seemed to be on Proposition 309’s side. The Arizona ballot measure sought to toughen the state’s requirements that residents present identification to vote—a reform pushed by state conservatives in the name of combating fraud but fought by civil rights groups for erecting undue barriers to voting and depressing turnout among people of color. And there was plenty of recent evidence to suggest the proposal would pass.
Each of the previous three states to consider voter-ID ballot measures—Missouri in 2016, and Arkansas and North Carolina in 2018—had approved them by at least 10 points each. In Arizona, a 2004 voter-ID measure that was less stringent than Proposition 309, had passed comfortably, too. At least on this issue, the concerns of organizations like the ACLU and the League of Women Voters kept being ignored.
But Arizonans on Nov. 8 bucked this history, despite Proposition 309’s huge fundraising advantage and the lack of organized opposition. They narrowly rejected the measure by about 18,000 votes, or 0.76 percent.
It was the first defeat in ten years for a ballot measure increasing voter ID mandates in the U.S., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ database. (Minnesotans rejected a voter ID measure by eight percentage points in 2012.)
Local advocates on both sides of the measure told Bolts that they were surprised by the outcome but explained it by naming several factors, starting with antipathy to Trumpism.
“Fundamentally, I just don’t think we can look at this one in a vacuum,” said Sarah Gonski, a Phoenix-based elections lawyer who has represented Democratic candidates in the state in recent cycles.
The measure was placed on the ballot on a party-line vote by Arizona’s GOP-controlled legislature, which spent much of the past two years rehearsing the former president’s lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 election. This inextricably linked it to controversial, top-of-the-ticket Arizona candidates who ran for office this year on election denialism, local politicos said. Proposition 309 appeared just down the ballot from far-right election deniers Kari Lake, who lost the governor’s race, Blake Masters, who lost the U.S. Senate race, and Mark Finchem, who lost the secretary of state’s race.
“I think that rejecting this initiative, which is a policy proposal that gets a lot of support usually, is intimately tied up with rejection of the Big Lie narrative that has pervaded Arizona’s political environment for the last two years,” said Gonski.
Bie Lie figures have been wildly successful in radicalizing people who previously trusted standard elections procedures. But their efforts have also made the broader electorate pay far more attention to once-obscure matters of election administration. Secretary of state races this year drew record spending, especially on the Democratic side.
Advocates in Arizona say this new context prepared many to more carefully consider proposed changes to voting rules than they may have in the past.
“I think that the population is a lot more interested in what used to be pretty dry, bureautic understandings of the way ballots are processed and the way election security is run,” said Gonski, who is now a senior policy advisor at the Institute for Responsive Government. “They’re paying attention and they’re interested to know so much more about elections and the way they work, and that does a huge amount for people understanding how secure our elections actually are.”
J.D. Mesnard, the Republican state senator who authored Proposition 309, has defended his proposals in recent years by saying that lawmakers should address people’s concerns about fraud even if there is no underlying evidence for them. In an interview with Bolts, he echoed the analysis that Arizonans voted down his initiative as part of rejecting efforts to revisit the 2020 election.
“To the extent that anybody sees bills focused on improving the integrity and security of our elections, and thinks the only reason you’re running them is because of the 2020 election, this all gets tangled up with people’s sentiments about President Trump and 2020,” he said.
Mesnard added that his frustration is with Democrats, not Trump: “I’m not trying to place blame on him; don’t get me wrong,” he said. “The opposition did a relatively consistent job of saying this is all feeding into the quote-unquote Big Lie.”
Then there’s the fact that Proposition 309 was a notably harsh voter ID law. It was more restrictive than the measures passed in the last decade in Nebraska, Missouri and Oklahoma. And it zipped far beyond the voter ID law Arizona adopted in 2004.
The measure would have required anyone voting in person to use a photo ID: This would have eliminated voters’ current ability to present two documents as alternatives to a photo ID—say, a bank statement, lease agreement, or utility bill.
It would also have made it harder for Arizonans to vote by mail, a widespread approach to voting there. Ballotpedia found at least 75 percent of the state’s voters cast ballots by mail in every general election between 2014 and 2020. Proposition 309 would have added more requirements for mail voters: They would have also had to fill out and enclose an affidavit including their driver’s license or ID card number, the last four digits of their Social Security number, or a unique registration number assigned to them by the state’s elections office.
The state has enabled voting by mail since the early 1990s. By 2007, when the legislature created a permanent early voting roll, “Arizona had so many people voting by mail that we literally couldn’t keep up with the applications,” Patrick said.
She added, “Arizonans have been doing this for a long time, and they love to do it, until and unless you have a presidential candidate, and then an incumbent president, suggesting voting by mail is fraudulent.”
Patrick, who now works as co-CEO of The Election Center, the national organization representing state and local elections officials, said Arizonans have had a long time to observe that stricter voter ID requirements don’t just ensnare fraudsters. Not everyone has an identification card, and some who do have ID that lacks a photo or an address.
“These are people saying, ‘I voted for that proposition in 2004, but I didn’t think it would affect me because it was just about fraud and it was just going to affect those other people,’” Patrick said. “Arizonans remember that, and they know that you can be a valid, eligible voter and not have an ID that is required under these specific types of laws.”
Native voters would have felt the brunt of the burdens proposed under Proposition 309, The Arizona Republic documented in October. Many tribes use identity cards that lack photos or home addresses, or otherwise don’t line up with state government standards.
“The reality for Native Americans who don’t have the same type of access to services whether it is the government, or any other things, this just needlessly complicates our ability to vote,” Kris Beecher, a lawyer in Arizona who is a member of the Navajo Nation, told The Republic. Nationwide analyses show that voter ID laws burden more people of color and reduce their participation.
That was of primary concern for groups that advocate for tribal communities, said Angela Willeford, intergovernmental relations project manager for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
“We’re nonpartisan, but we said ‘vote no on 309’, and we never do that typically,” she told Bolts.
Arizona Republicans likely won’t be able to pass new statutes restricting voting rights for at least the next four years; the governor’s office flipped blue last month for the first time since 2009, handing Democrat Katie Hobbs a veto pen. But the GOP still controls the legislature, and lawmakers could vote again to place a measure like Proposition 309 directly on the ballot, circumventing Hobbs. Mesnard told Bolts he isn’t sure it will.
But Patrick said state and local elections administrators in Arizona are doing more public education than ever around how elections are run, and said she’s heartened that journalistic outlets are dedicating more resources to the elections beat.
“We used to lament about toiling away in obscurity,” the former Maricopa County official said.
Opponents of 309 prevailed narrowly, but in defeating the measure, Gonski believes, “The people of Arizona started to say that we’re not prepared to give up easier access to democracy in exchange for more heightened security checks on top of what we have. They started to say, enough.”