US court blocks Arizona ban on groups collecting ballots

PHOENIX (AP) -- Democrats fighting two Arizona laws that they say hinder minorities from voting won major victories from a federal appeals court Friday, just days before a tightening election in the traditionally red state.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked a new state law that makes it a felony for groups to go door to door to collect early ballots and deliver them to the polls. It is an especially effective tactic in minority communities, and Democrats and some voters to allege the law hurt minorities' ability to vote.

The 11-judge panel said it was preserving the status quo for Tuesday's election, which could come down to the wire in Arizona as Democrats spend heavily to get out the vote from Latinos and others angered by Donald Trump's anti-immigrant comments. But he has fired up the conservative base angry over illegal immigration.

The court also said it will reconsider a ruling by a panel of three 9th Circuit judges who refused to order ballots be counted if voters go to the wrong polling place to cast them.

Democrats say Arizona throws out more ballots cast at incorrect polling locations than any other state and that minorities are more likely to be affected. In 2012, nearly 11,000 ballots were disqualified.

The state filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court over the ballot collection law enacted by the Republican-dominated Legislature early this year. In blocking it, the 9th Circuit set a full hearing for January on the Democrats' request to make it permanent. Five of the 11 judges opposed the move.

Chief Judge Sidney Thomas wrote that the decision will not add or remove any valid votes. He said the law criminalized delivering someone else's early ballot, which would still be counted.

GOP Gov. Doug Ducey signed the law and called it a common-sense effort to protect the integrity of elections and eliminate voter fraud. A spokesman for Ducey said the governor's office was reviewing the order.

Both parties have used ballot collection to boost turnout during elections by going door to door and asking voters if they have completed their mail-in ballots. Voters who have not are urged to do so, and the volunteers offer to take the ballots to election offices. Democrats, however, use it more effectively.

The law does not prevent voters' family members or caregivers from turning in ballots.

Arizona Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham said the law is constitutional.

"I think the 9th Circuit ruling quite honestly is pathetic," Graham said. "It is about voter integrity.

"Anybody that says that they can't get to the mailbox to drop off their ballot when they have 29 days to do it should be embarrassed," Graham added.

Spencer Scharff of the Arizona Democratic Party called it a win for voters.

"We are committed to ensuring that everyone has not just the right to vote, but the ability to vote," Scharff said. "And being able to assist a voter to turn in their mail-in ballot is critical to that goal and achieving full access to the ballot box."

Besides Democrats, at least one independent group said it was gearing up for ballot collection efforts, with its volunteers planning to pick up ballots after being summoned by text message.

Meanwhile, an 11-judge panel will review the Democratic challenge to Arizona refusing to count ballots cast at the wrong location. In the most populous counties, voters must go to their assigned polling place if they vote in person or their ballots are rejected.

A federal judge rejected the challenge last month, ruling the state has a valid reason not to count such votes because ballots contain different races in different areas. The judge also said Democrats have not shown that minorities were affected more than white voters.

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Associated Press writer Astrid Galvin contributed to this story.

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