How One Group Is Tackling Voter Intimidation In Arizona

Right-wingers are bringing tactical gear. LUCHA is bringing a party bus.

Paul Sancya/AP

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Mari Alvarado, a retired public school teacher, has served as an election poll worker in Arizona’s Maricopa County for more than a decade, but she’s never experienced anything like she has in the last two years.

“It used to be boring!” she said. 

“All we had was ‘who brought the donuts.’ Now it’s like you better check your back, who’s coming and who’s leaving. This is crazy! That’s not the way to run elections. We’re just little old ladies, most of us.”

During the primary in August, a woman came into Alvarado’s polling location shouting “that the election was fraudulent and that people voted who shouldn’t be voting,” she recalled. The woman continued shouting about Democrats and stolen elections “all the way to the parking lot.” 

“Disruptions, intimidation of voters—and if they did that during the primary, what do you think is gonna happen during the midterm?”

In the days following the 2020 election,Trump supporters with guns started gathering outside the vote-tabulation center in Maricopa County. This year’s campaign is already filled with reports of voter intimidation. In October, an Arizona Republic photographer snapped a photo of a small group of people, standing or sitting in lawn chairs, filming a woman as she placed her ballot in the dropbox in Mesa:

If there were no larger context, the image might be slightly comic—activists camped out like modern-day Millerites, waiting for a promised revelation of massive fraud that will never come. But the dropbox-watchers are not just sitting passively. A few days earlier, Phoenix’s ABC affiliate snagged footage of two people with face masks and tactical gear in a pickup truck outside the same dropbox in Mesa. A few nights before that, a voter was followed and accused of being a “mule” while attempting to drop off a ballot in Mesa. There is some irony to the party that’s drumming up fears of a crime wave also becoming the party of accosting-you-in-a-dark-parking-lot, but the message behind this trend is pretty clear: watch out.

For Democrats and organizations that are focusing on turning out voters who vote for Democrats, these well-publicized efforts to inject fear into a peaceful process have added another challenge, beyond countering the messaging about gas prices and rainbow fentanyl: How do you reassure voters that voting this year will be not just a comfortable experience but maybe even…kind of fun?

For a glimpse of this counter-programming on a recent Saturday, I dropped by a park in Glendale, northwest of downtown Phoenix, for a “Burritos y Baletas” event hosted by Living United for Change in Arizona (a.k.a. LUCHA), the Latino community organizing powerhouse that has played a major part in the state’s political transformation over the last decade. The purpose of the event was two-fold. Many of the people in attendance would be going canvassing. But because most Arizonans vote early and receive their ballots in the mail, attendees had also been invited to bring their ballots with them to the event, where they could fill them out together in a communal and festive atmosphere, and then take a bus to drop their ballots off at a polling location. Not just any bus, though—a party bus.

“We want to make sure the community knows that they can vote together, that they can find a buddy to go vote with, and feel safe and secure and support them and participate—and that we’re counting on them to participate,” Alex Gomez, the group’s executive director, told me.

Stephanie Maldonado, the group’s organizing director, took the lead in walking attendees through the process. “We know how important it is to create spaces like this, where people look like us, where people speak our language, and where we put on the music that makes us feel the happiest, and where we are represented,” she told them. 

LUCHA covers all the bases. Maldonado made sure everyone had a black pen—the laws are very strict on that. “They’re trying to find any excuse to throw our ballots out,” she said. “If you’re gonna go canvas, grab some black pens!” 

Everyone had a copy of what the group calls its “golden ticket”—a list of endorsements designed in such a way that it mirrors what’s on the ballot. A key to their success this year is making sure voters actually flip their ballots over to see the initiatives on the other side; one of the group’s top priorities isn’t a candidate but a referendum—proposition 308, which would allow non-citizens who attended high school in Arizona to receive in-state tuition.

As people filled out their ballots, organizers checked to make sure the writing on the green envelopes each ballot was placed in was legible. “Make sure it’s as neat as possible,” someone told a voter who was writing down their contact info, “because if anything happens, that’s the number they have to call.”

Volunteers who were going canvassing received instructions of their own, with an eye toward making the voting process easier and ensuring that the voters LUCHA is targeting actually turn out. If a voter has already received their ballot, a LUCHA canvasser can walk them through how to fill it out at the door, with the “golden ticket” as a guide, and then make sure the voter drops it off at the mailbox as soon as they’re done—all in one go. If they haven’t received it, the canvassers have QR codes that voters can scan to check on their ballot status. Voters who want to cast their ballot the old-fashioned way can find their early-voting location.

“They’re at the polls right now, 24/7, making sure that they’re intimidating the people that are going to vote,” an organizer tells the volunteers in attendance, referring to the right-wing dropbox-watchers. “They’re trying to stop us from voting, they’re trying to stop us from turning it in, so it’s our job as well to empower these individuals that we’re gonna be talking to that they have a right to be at the freaking polling location.”

At about 11:30 a.m., a shiny black bus pulled into the parking lot. It was, indeed, a party bus—dark inside with blue nightclub lighting and bottles of water in place of booze.

“Oh my god look at this!” a voter shouted, taking her first glimpse inside. 

The young voters who opted to ride the bus formed a single-file column and held up their green envelopes triumphantly as they jogged, one by one, through two rows of LUCHA volunteers—who clutched “Yes on 308” yard signs and cheered as they ran past. Then, they did it twice more, just to make sure the group got a good-enough take for social media.

I could just start to hear the thump of a bass as I walked away.

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