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Arizona Democratic Party v. Hobbs

Issues: Whether recent changes to Arizona's election procedures – which provide both absentee voters whose signatures on their mail-in ballots cannot be verified, and in-person voters who cannot provide proper identification at the polls, up to five days after Election Day to remedy their ballot identification issues – must also be extended to absentee voters who submit unsigned ballots.
State: Arizona
Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit
Status: District court order extending deadline to address unsigned mail-in ballots put on hold by 9th Circuit

Arizona allows all voters to vote by mail without an excuse in the 27 days leading up to an election. In June, the Arizona Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee filed a lawsuit against Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in federal court in Arizona. They challenged the state’s requirement that voters who forget to sign their mail-in ballots fix the mistake by Election Day, rather than within five days after the election, which is the deadline when the state determines that a voter’s signature on a mail-in ballot doesn’t match the one on file. Observing that in “recent general elections, a significant number of mail ballots have been rejected in Arizona for missing signatures,” the ADP argued that missing signatures could create even more problems this year because of the current delays in mail delivery. Voters may send in their ballots on time, the ADP contended, but if they neglect to sign their ballots, “through the vagaries of mail delivery that are entirely outside their control,” they may not be able to provide a signature by Election Day so that their ballots can be counted.

U.S. District Judge Douglas Rayes ruled for the ADP on September 10. He concluded that the state’s Election-Day deadline for voters to supply a missing signature “imposes minimal but unjustifiable burdens on the right to vote” and does not do enough to protect the rights of voters, especially voters who submit their ballots so close to Election Day that they may not have time to correct a missing signature. Rayes ordered election officials to give voters who forget to sign their ballots five days after Election Day to provide the missing signature.

Rayes rejected a request from Arizona, the Republican National Committee, the Arizona Republican Party and the Trump campaign (all of which had intervened in the case) to put his ruling on hold while they appeal. Rayes acknowledged that the issues in the case “are difficult and fairly contestable,” but he also observed that “the State’s chief election officer” – Hobbs, who is a Democrat – had “welcomed” his order.

The intervenors went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, asking that court to fast-track their appeal so that they could “seek relief from the U.S. Supreme Court before the general election if necessary.”

The 9th Circuit on Oct. 6 granted the state’s request to put Rayes’ order on hold while the state’s appeal is litigated. The court of appeals concluded that the requirement that voters supply a missing signature by Election Day imposes only a “minimal” burden. By contrast, the court concluded, “as we rapidly approach the election, the public interest is well served by preserving Arizona’s existing election laws, rather than by sending the State scrambling to implement and to administer a new procedure for curing unsigned ballots at the eleventh hour.” This is particularly true, the court noted, when the Supreme Court has repeatedly admonished the lower federal courts not to change the rules of an election in the run-up to that election.