Hobbs Reverses Course, Federal Appeals Court To Address Voter Registration Deadline

[Photo courtesy U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit]

In a major reversal, Arizona’s top election official has announced she will appeal a federal court order which extended the state’s voter registration deadline from Oct. 5 to Oct. 23.

On Sunday afternoon, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs informed the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that she has changed her mind about not fighting the extension. Instead, she wants to take part in a hearing Monday afternoon to argue in support of a compromise, such as an Oct. 16 deadline.

“While the Secretary did not initially intend to appeal the trial court’s order because she desired certainty and finality, the instant appeal and stay requests have still caused significant uncertainty and that ongoing uncertainty, coupled with the disruption to election administration, warrants the Secretary’s involvement,” Hobbs’ attorneys advised the court of appeals.

On Oct. 5, U.S. District Court Judge Steven Logan granted a request from two voter advocacy organizations to extend Arizona’s statutory deadline due to difficulties in holding voter information events stemming from COVID-19 social distancing issues. The registration deadline has been set in statute for nearly 30 years as 29 days before the general election.

Hobbs opposed the groups’ extension request and believed it would cause hardships for election officials across the state. But once the federal judge issued his ruling Hobbs announced after the ruling that she did not intend to appeal, fearing additional litigation would “only create more uncertainty, disruption, and voter confusion.”

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“In other words, the Secretary was prepared to accept the district court’s order and work to implement it despite the hardship it causes for Arizona’s election administrators,” according to Hobbs’ attorneys.

The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, however, did file an appeal. Then last week Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed pleadings with the court of appeals, seeking status to intervene so he can argue against any extension to the Oct. 5 deadline.

On Friday evening, the three Ninth Circuit judges who will preside over the Oct. 12 arguments issued an order asking Hobbs to file a statement regarding her intent to appeal in this matter.

“We further invite the Secretary to provide any views she wishes to express or information she wishes to provide concerning the emergency matters pending before this court, and to appear for oral argument if she wishes to do so,” the order states.

Hobbs’ statement was filed shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday. In it she explains her decision to appeal came after it became apparent the Oct. 23 extended deadline “comes at the cost of and risk to other important administrative work and timelines necessary to ensure the orderly administration of the election, and imposes a heavy burden on some counties.”

With early voting already underway in Arizona, Hobbs is seeking a final resolution, quickly. Which is particularly critical for those counties with only two or three elections employees.

“There can be no disputing that extending the registration deadline to October 23, 2020, creates significant administrative burdens on county officials,” Hobbs noted in her statement. However, she believes an earlier deadline is workable if announced soon.

She also wants confirmation that all qualified voters who properly registered during the extension period “will be deemed timely-registered” and not challengeable based solely on the date of their registration.

“Such a resolution will not only provide much-needed certainty but will alleviate the significant administrative burdens facing election administrators, while ensuring eligible voters who have yet to register – possibly relying on the lower court’s injunction extending the deadline to October 23, 2020 – receive a reasonable grace period during which they can submit a timely registration,” Hobbs notes in her statement.

At Monday’s hearing the court of appeals will also decide whether Brnovich as attorney general will be granted standing to intervene in the case.  And while Hobbs doesn’t take a position on that issue, she does make it clear that elections are her responsibility.

“The Secretary, not the Attorney General, is Arizona’s Chief Election Officer,” Hobbs’ filing states. It also adds that “unlike the Attorney General and the Republican Party Intervenors” she has the relevant knowledge and expertise to address the burdens on election officials and recommend a stay that balances the interests of Arizona voters and elections officials alike.

“Because some Arizonans have relied on the district court’s injunction, the Court should give them notice and a grace period so they can complete their registration,” Hobbs’ statement concludes. “But in the end, leaving the deadline as October 23 will interfere with the orderly administration of the General Election.”