SIERRA VISTA — The Sierra Vista Unified School District may face legal trouble after a voter registration drive at Buena High School turned political during school hours, which could be deemed against the law.
On Monday and Tuesday, tables were set up on campus during the school’s lunch periods for students to register to vote if they wanted to do so and are of legal voting age. SVUSD spokesman Jacob Martinez said in an emailed statement to the Herald/Review that a volunteer had reached out to the district and was given permission to hold a non-partisan voter registration drive by Superintendent Kelly Glass’s assistant Alan Ramsey before referring them to Buena.
Tami Birch, vice president for the Mule Mountain Democratic Club, told the Herald/Review she was the volunteer who reached out to Ramsey to have a nonpartisan voter registration signup event at the high school because she has been a part of such events in the past.
After Birch secured permission, Buena administrators reached out to the Cochise County Republican Committee to extend an invitation, though Martinez said they were given certain guidelines to follow.
However, the Cochise County Republican Committee’s display and distribution of pins and hats appear to be in violation of the Arizona statute prohibiting such partisan activities using school district resources; in this case, Buena High School.
“Buena High School administration invited the County Republican Party to attend under specific conditions,” Martinez’s statement reads. “Among the conditions were they would not be allowed to bring more than four people, they could not bring partisan paraphernalia or advocate for a particular candidate or position, and they could not refuse to register anyone.”
Those nonpartisan rules stem from Arizona Revised Statute 15-511, which includes the laws for campaigning in schools. According to the statute, which was brought to the Herald/Review’s attention by the Arizona School Board Association (ASBA), ARS 15-511 “prohibits school districts from using school resources to influence the outcome of an election. … It prohibits students being given campaign material intended to influence the outcome of an election or outcome of legislation.
“If it is an event where the public is not generally invited — like during the school day — parents or community members would have to stay off school premises to hand material out.”
“It prohibits the use of school property, including equipment, paper, copiers, buildings, computers, etc., from being used to influence the outcome of a ballot measure or candidate,” according to the ASBA.
Robert Montgomery, chairman for the Cochise County Republican Committee, who was one of several people running the group’s table, said they handed out candidate buttons and hats on Monday but ran out on the second day, and registered all students who came to them, no matter the party affiliation.
He said they were not given any specific rules to follow, and no administrator told them what they were doing was wrong until about 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
According to the documents about ARS 15-511 provided by the ASBA, “the best practice is to avoid children taking home any material that might be deemed political.”
“The law is very clear that students should never be used in an attempt to influence the outcome of an election,” the ASBA stated.
According to the statute, “for each violation of this section, the court may impose a civil penalty not to exceed five thousand dollars ... against a person who knowingly violates or a person who knowingly aids another person in violating this section. The person determined to be out of compliance with this section shall be responsible for the payment of all penalties ... “
Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre said he was “aware of the situation” but declined to comment or clarify whether he believes a violation had occurred, “given my potential responsibility under that statute to review the issue.”
Birch said she was aware that the event had to be nonpartisan because all voter registration sign ups, no matter their location, must be.
Birch and Lisa Reuter, the volunteer who worked the table adjacent to the Cochise County Republican Committee, attended a class in November by the Indivisibles on how to collect voter registrations. The “Indivisible Project” is a left-wing movement that came about in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election that is dedicated to cultivating “a grassroots movement of literally thousands of local Indivisible groups to elect progressive leaders, realize bold progressive policies, rebuild our democracy, and defeat the Trump agenda,” according to the group’s website.
“I wasn’t trained to be pro-Democrat (in the class),” Reuter said. “In fact, it was the opposite. I was there as a party person, as in I’m a registered Democrat, but I didn’t have anything that said that.”
Before the event, Reuter contacted Ramsey to make sure she was squared away for the event. Martinez said there wasn’t a problem with how Reuter conducted herself or with how her table was presented.
“The volunteer who made arrangements through the district complied,” Martinez wrote in a statement. “The volunteers from the county Republican Party who showed up on school property did not comply with these rules.”
Montgomery, with the Republican Party, said once they were told they needed to stop handing out pins and hats on Tuesday, they stopped, and if they had been told earlier they would have stopped then.
Martinez did not respond to a request for clarification from the Herald/Review regarding how and when the parties were given any guidelines, including those Martinez said in his initial statement were given to the Republican Party, for the event. Both Reuter and Montgomery denied they were given any specific rules or guidelines to follow.
SVUSD issued a statement about what occurred on Monday and Tuesday via their Facebook page on Thursday evening, after the Herald/Review had sent a list of questions to administrators regarding the matter. The post received comments from a number of angry parents, as well as some who were happy the parties were there.
Shannon Glaser, first co-chair for the Cochise County Democratic Committee and the mother of a student at Buena, said she was made aware of what was happening by her son, since he found it odd the Republican Party members were there and able to hand out the materials.
Glaser said her committee was unaware of the event and was taken aback because a couple of weeks ago they were told by Buena administrators they couldn’t hang fliers for an internship because it was too partisan.
The district announced the signup event on their Facebook page on Monday, stating: “County representatives will be available during lunch periods at Buena High School today and tomorrow (Feb. 10-11) to provide voting information and assist with voter registration.”
“I was excited there were going to be people there to register young people to vote,” Glaser said. “We aren’t mad (the Cochise County Republican Committee) had a presence there. As a parent, I’m extremely upset how this went down.”
She said party affiliation doesn’t matter in what happened because the campaigning laws were broken and having people in the building who weren’t vetted — because Reuter isn’t with the county — is a security issue.
“The safety thing isn’t a partisan thing,” she said.
Glaser said Saturday afternoon that she and a few other parents had filed complaints with the state Attorney General’s Office, the Cochise County Attorney’s Office, the school district and the Cochise County Superintendent’s Office. Glaser also said she plans to attend Tuesday’s SVUSD board meeting to speak out about the issue during the call to the public.
Martinez said the district is working on a solution to prevent this from happening again.
“The district has addressed the issue internally and will be working with stakeholders to ensure this never happens again,” Martinez’s statement said.
The district is expected to address the issue during its Tuesday board meeting, 6 p.m. at the District Administration building, 3555 Fry Boulevard.