Maricopa County Recorder’s Voter Roundtables Seek To Improve Turnout Among Marginalized Groups

Published: Sunday, July 21, 2019 - 8:23pm
Jackie Hai/KJZZ
A sign outside a Phoenix-area polling location in 2018.

Everybody has equal access to the electoral process under the law. But in practice, barriers exist that often keep members of certain marginalized groups from voting or even participating in elections. For example, a person with certain disabilities might not be able to sign their ballot, or Native Americans might only possess tribal identification, which isn’t accepted at the polls.

That’s why the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office established the Roundtable Project, which seeks feedback from these marginalized groups to improve their access and amplify their voices.

“The goal of the Roundtable Project is to work directly with communities historically disenfranchised in the electoral process,” the agency said in a statement.

The Roundtable Project has representatives from six different groups, meet quarterly to discuss ways their communities are underrepresented, and what changes the Recorder's Office can change the process to help the community exercise their voting rights.

Each roundtable series ends with a public Town Hall meeting where the groups present their findings to the public.

The individual groups include representatives from the Hispanic, Native American, African American, and Asian American communities, as well as college and university students, and people with disabilities.

Accessibility

A well-meaning poll worker might grab the arm of a person with a visual impairment to lead them to the voting booth.

Disability advocate Renaldo Fowler, with the Arizona Center for Disability Law, says this is one of the many reasons people with disabilities might avoid the polls. And before these panels and roundtables brought the issue to light, poll workers might not have known that.

Seemingly little things like the color and font used on web pages, or optimizing web content for screen readers can go a long way for improving access, said Fowler. Training poll workers to appropriately accommodate all voters is important, too.

“There are tough issues,” he said. “There are things that need to happen in the future. We still have a ways to go but we’re headed in the right direction.”

Indian Country Issues

In 2004, voters approved Proposition 200, which required identification to be shown at polling places. Many Native Americans only possess tribal identification, which can keep them from accessing polling stations.

Many Native Americans born in Indian Country often lack state identification.

“My mother was born in a hogan with no birth certificate,” said Derrick Beetso, the general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians and leader of the Native American Roundtable. “These ID issues are huge for us. Sometimes all they have is a certificate of Indian Blood or some sort of documentation from the federal government that they are who they say they are.”

“When a tribal government issues a tribal ID to its citizens, it’s just like a state issuing a state ID to its citizens,” Beetso said. There are four of these tribal governments in Maricopa County, and the county has the largest Native American population in the United States.

During the 2018 primary election, some poll workers weren’t accepting Tribal identification cards, and some cards weren’t scanning correctly, even though state documents explicitly state that tribal identification must be accepted at the polls.

Beetso says his goals are increasing education and outreach to poll workers to prevent these issues in the future.

Positive Results

So far, the leaders of the individual roundtables are seeing positive changes in the electoral process.

“There was a big barrier with (poll workers) being bilingual and able to provide aid,” said Patti Serrano, the Hispanic community leader. “It really is a feat just to get people together in a room, and for us to have accomplished getting 15 organizations together ... it’s a very important lesson. Our job as community organizations, we know we need to do better to encourage bilinguals to apply for these positions.”

“We had many different disabilities (represented) at the round table,” said Fowler, the disability advocate. “(Fontes) came to the roundtable and had a conversation with voters with disabilities. There was some follow-through. A lot of times you come to these meetings and there’s no follow-through.”

"Providing better access and transparency has been a goal of mine since I took office," Fontes said in a written statement. "Through direct engagement with community leaders on the voting process, we can help educate voters while receiving crucial feedback to improve the voter experience. Through these roundtable meetings, we’ve learned how we can perform better as recording and elections departments, and how we can better serve all Maricopa County voters and residents."

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