It took years for immigrant Yolanda Hernandez to become eligible to cast an election ballot in the United States, but since she obtained citizenship in her adopted country, she has made sure her vote counted. Being able to vote is so important for her that, in mid-June, she took time off from her hotel housekeeping job to help defend the rights of all voters.
As the national debate over voting rights intensifies, Hernandez boarded one of four buses that left Phoenix on June 18 for Washington, D.C., stopping to hold rallies along the way. The Freedom Ride, scheduled to arrive in the nation’s capital June 26, is modeled after a 1960s tactic used by civil rights movement volunteers, who rode buses over state lines to challenge racial segregation in the South. Sixty years after the original bus rides, modern-day passengers from Arizona, California, Georgia, and other states will lobby members of Congress to support federal legislation that would ensure protection of voting rights.
“Together, we have to make our voices heard,” says Hernandez, 59. “Here in Arizona, for example, they want to remove our right to vote early, and we don’t want that to happen.”
The bus tour emerged from grassroots organizing to enfranchise voters in minority communities, work that deepened after a 2010 Arizona immigration law that made it a crime for those without legal status to be in the state. The massive mobilization to protect against Senate Bill 1070 gradually helped loosen a Republican grip on the state and spurred organizations and activists to unify in a common quest for political change.
Voting-rights groups, immigrant-rights organizations and labor unions are among the collectives fighting state lawmakers’ plans to toughen the voting process—which opponents say will further disenfranchise minority communities. Arizona is one of 14 states that by mid-May had enacted 22 election laws, according to a Brennan Center analysis that documented more than 350 restrictive bills introduced in 48 states. Although supporters often cast such efforts as necessary to protect election integrity, opponents say they are merely a groundless assault on the will of voters in November’s election.
“It just goes to show that Republicans are very unhappy with how democracy actually works,” says Progress Arizona’s Vianey de Anda. “It’s clear that they’re specifically trying to target and suppress certain communities.”
In Arizona, a contentious new law known as SB 1485 that was passed and signed into law May 11 may remove tens of thousands of voters from the state’s active early voting rolls. Voting-rights activists say the law is meant to disempower Latino, Black, and Native American voters who in the 2020 presidential election were pivotal in transforming the state’s political spectrum. “This really is a civil rights fight of our lifetime,” says Maria Hernandez, a spokeswoman for Unite Here, a labor union that represents hospitality workers in Arizona and southern California.
Even though voters chose to give Arizona’s state legislature a slight Republican majority, in 2020 they elected a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 24 years and voted for two Democratic senators for the first time in 70 years. A historic voter turnout helped push those Democrats over the top: A total of 3.4 million Arizonans voted in November, compared with 2.7 million in the presidential election of 2016.
Despite official reviews that found no evidence of election fraud in Arizona, as former President Trump and his supporters have long maintained after his narrow loss, state Republicans ordered an audit of the 2.1 million votes cast in Maricopa County, home to more than 60% of Arizona’s registered voters. The weekslong audit, which has no statutory authority, is expected to leave the election outcome unchanged when it ends, possibly in late June. It already has inspired visitors from other states, including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, to consider their own audit.
Maria Hernandez, de Anda, and other organizers view a sweeping federal election reform bill being debated in Congress as a solution to counter states’ actions. “The only thing that the restrictions are doing is creating barriers in front of voters who are trying to vote. They’re making it as complicated as possible so that folks are turned away and they don’t vote,” de Anda says.
Provisions of the federal For the People Act include requiring states to offer mail-in ballots and automatic voter registration, as well as end partisan congressional gerrymandering. The legislation passed the House of Representatives in March but faces various hurdles to passage in the Senate, where Republicans have used a filibuster to prevent the bill from being taken up. Still, organizers and activists hold out hope that their presence in Washington might persuade members of Congress to approve the bill.
“We have a broad coalition of people from all over the country, people from different faiths and beliefs, different organizations, different ethnic groups,” says Wanda Mosley, national field director for Black Voters Matter. “I believe that members of Congress perhaps haven’t seen a group like this coming to D.C. in quite some time.”
Should the legislation meet its demise in the Senate, organizers and activists won’t let lawmakers off the hook. “If it takes reforming or eliminating the filibuster to do that, then we want elected officials to do what is necessary,” Hernandez says.
Before the bus tour, organizers and activists conducted extensive outreach in communities of color (much of it through social media, given the coronavirus pandemic) who they say will be most affected by voting restrictions. In Arizona, the organizing is a continuation of grassroots activists’ decadelong focus on engaging voters in the electoral process, informing communities about the potential negative impact of proposed legislation, and encouraging people to contact their legislators and congressional representatives.
Progress Arizona, where de Anda works, is one of several groups that during this year’s legislative session fought to defeat dozens of election bills in Arizona, although SB 1485 and another restrictive bill, SB 1003, were signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey. SB 1003 aims to reduce the time allowed for fixing mismatched or missing signatures on mailed ballots. In November, 2.4 million of the 3.4 million Arizonans who voted did so by mail.
“We are trying to make sure that our communities are aware, that they learn of the importance of their roles” in bringing about political change that will benefit their communities, de Anda says.
Yolanda Hernandez, a Mexico native who has lived in Arizona since the mid-1980s, subscribes to a similar way of thinking. She belongs to Unite Here Local 11 in the Phoenix area, where she champions the interests of fellow hotel employees as a union steward. Preserving people’s voting rights is another cause worth defending, she says.
“I became a citizen so that I could vote,” she says. “If we want change, we have to get involved.”
In a sense, the grassroots organizing and collective partnerships that SB 1070 fostered in 2010 may have left activists better positioned to quickly move against new voting restrictions when they are proposed today. The all-out mobilization to register new voters in ethnic communities before elections has made it easier to reach out to members of those diverse populations and spread the word about possible voting restrictions via calls, texts, social media, and virtual town halls.
“That’s mainly the group of voters that we’re contacting to let them know what’s going on,” says Karina Diaz, executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition. The Phoenix nonprofit advocates for immigrants—frequently called “Dreamers”—who have lived in the U.S. without legal status since childhood.
Before the last election, organizers also left flyers on scores of people’s doors with information about polling places and reminders of the deadline to mail in their ballots. That type of organizing, Diaz says, has made a significant difference in election participation for members of lower-income, long-disenfranchised communities whose members often must hold two or more jobs to make ends meet, leaving little free time for anything else.
The situation for some Black voters in Georgia, where Mosley lives, is similar. “We find that people have to work extras shifts, they have to work multiple jobs so that they are able to keep up and pay bills,” she says. “And so oftentimes young folks don’t have the luxury of being able to sit down at the dinner table or on the couch after work to research the location of their polling precincts, because we see them change so often.”
And those living in Arizona’s remote Native American communities may be unable to vote because they can’t access election materials online, or because traveling to distant polls could prove difficult, organizers point out.
Maria Hernandez (who is not related to Yolanda Hernandez) says that her labor union and other partners in Arizona knocked on 1 million doors in the months before the 2020 election. They also went to Georgia to help activists there make progressive political gains, but working to protect voting rights is now at the forefront. “We believe that it’s not just enough to have a good union contract,” she says.
Adds Diaz: “We are facilitating the voting process.” That’s something proponents of voting restrictions don’t like because it could diminish their own political power, she says. In Arizona, the midterm election of 2022 will come with high stakes: the seats of Republican Gov. Ducey and incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, will be up for grabs. Activists and organizers also have their eyes on turning the state legislature blue. “It’s a lot,” Diaz says. “They [Republicans] know they can lose power if it’s easier for people to vote.”
Arizonans are keeping up the pressure on Kelly and Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to support the For the People Act. Yolanda Hernandez will be doing her part in both Arizona and in Washington to rally around the common goal of securing voting rights for all.
Lourdes Medrano is an independent journalist in southern Arizona, where she writes about immigration, underserved communities, the environment and other matters of importance in both the U.S. and neighboring Mexico. A 2020-21 Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, she has written for various publications, including the Washington Post, Undark Magazine, The Atlantic and Audubon Magazine. She speaks English and Spanish. Reach her via Twitter direct message or LinkedIn.