Power and Persuasion: A Civics Lession from the Arizona Legislature

“I’m not trying to pressure you, but are you going to change your vote?”

Eddie Farnsworth, the chair of the Arizona House Judiciary Committee uttered these words yesterday as he stared down Representative Doris Goodale during deliberation over SB 1003.

“If you are going to change your vote, this would be the appropriate time.”

“Yes, Mr. Chairman. I will change my vote.”

Goodale’s original “no” vote would have killed the bill. Her stand was principled and courageous.  Unfortunately, it also directly contravened the opinion of the Chair.

Drafted largely by the office of Secretary of State Ken Bennett in response to the post-election uproar last November about uncounted votes in Arizona, SB 1003 would make it a class 6 felony to carry another person’s mail-in ballot without a signed affidavit. It’s primary affect would be to eliminate a key voter engagement tactic used by community groups over the last three years to alleviate the massive disparity in participation between white and Latino voters in Arizona.

In the original round of voting, Goodale, a Republican, joined three Democrats—two Latino and one the former President of the Navajo Nation—in opposing the bill.  She clearly articulated the needs of her largely rural constituents when she voted “no.”

But Farnsworth dismissed his colleagues’ and all other citizen testimony and took offense to the very idea SB 1003 could discriminate against Latino, Native American, elderly, and disabled voters.  He even went so far as to mock one disabled man who testified against the bill, saying he found it “hard to believe that a man who can come all the way here from Tucson to testify cannot not get on the bus to deliver his ballot.”  Of course, Chairman Farnsworth did not make these comments during testimony, when opponents of the bill could respond.

A few hours after the hearing, I received an email from a colleague who had also been present for deliberations on SB1003.  She complimented me on my testimony, which she found “very persuasive—not persuasive enough to overcome all the prejudice and suspicion at the front of the room, but maybe a start.”

Yesterday’s committee meeting, however, demonstrated that in Arizona, as in most of today’s United States, policy—especially when matters of race and discrimination are involved—has little to do with persuasion and everything to do with power.  More than anything, her words made me feel stupid for forgetting, even for a moment, this golden rule.

So, today, for us advocates of racial justice and fair standards for working people, it’s once more into the fray. Thank you, Chairman Farnsworth, for the civics lesson.

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