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Activists threaten lawsuit over county officials’ early ballot warning

Maricopa County Early Ballot

Hispanic activists are threatening to sue Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell if she doesn’t retract and clarify a statement she made last week.

During part of a news story Thursday aired by local CBS affiliate KPHO, Purcell warned voters about giving their ballot to someone offering to turn it in.

“According to County Recorder Helen Purcell, no one has been authorized to pick up the ballots,” KPHO reporter Donna Rossi narrates. “In fact Purcell points out that it’s a Class 5 felony to possess someone else’s ballot.”

That is not true under Arizona law, the activists say.

Roopali Desai, an attorney working on behalf of Promise Arizona in Action, a political activism group that is threatening to sue Purcell, said the law is very simple.

A.R.S. 16-1005 says it’s illegal to pose as election officials or to collect a ballot and not turn it in, Desai said.  But it does not outlaw possessing a ballot to turn it in for someone. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, Desai said, expressly states that people can be assisted in casting a ballot.

Purcell said that she was pointing out that she has heard reports of people coming to a voter’s door and saying they were “from the county,” before asking to take a ballot to turn in.  She said she was trying to highlight that it is a Class 5 felony to offer to pick up a ballot while also impersonating an election official. She said she will not retract what she said, and that she cannot take responsibility for what KPHO’s reporters may have added to the piece.

KPHO’s online companion article ends with “Purcell said that if anyone comes to your door wanting to pick up your ballot, call police,” but Purcell said she did not make that comment.

If there was any muddling of the truth, Purcell said, it was on the part of KPHO.  Representatives of the station could not be reached for comment.

Democratic field workers and activists say they have never impersonated election officials.  They have developed a strategy to boost voter participation that they say is now suspect to some voters after Purcell’s warning.

Randy Parraz, a lead organizer with Citizens for a Better Arizona, the group that helped unseat former Senate President Russell Pearce, said picking up completed ballots from those on the early voter list is part of a carefully thought-out system for increasing voter participation.

First, he and his volunteers go register new voters and urge them to sign up for the permanent early voter list, which means they will receive an early ballot in the mail.  Volunteers keep the information so when early ballots go out they can return, check to see if the person has filled out the ballot, urge them to do so if they haven’t and offer to take it to the recorder’s office.

“We’ve collected more than a thousand ballots just in the last week. I’m looking at over a hundred sitting in my office right now,” Parraz said. “Now she’s telling people to call the police if we ask to help someone vote? Are you out of your mind?”

Promise Arizona in Action met with Purcell Monday afternoon to discuss the issue. According to a press release sent out by the group after the meeting, Purcell admitted that the KPHO story had inaccuracies in it, and the group urged Purcell to issue a clarifying statement.

Desai, the attorney representing Promise Arizona in Action said in a previous letter that the group would file a lawsuit against the recorder’s office if they did not retract or refute what was said in the story. Parraz said he is also considering a lawsuit on behalf of Citizens for a Better Arizona.

Parraz said he has talked with well-known election attorney Tom Ryan and they are considering hiring him to take the case.

Frank Camacho, the spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party, said it’s possible that Purcell’s comment may have already had a detrimental effect on their efforts.

“Our volunteers and our staff folks are going out and knocking on doors and getting ballots now,” Camacho said.

Camacho said if his volunteers will note what’s in the law if they encounter anyone who saw Purcell’s statement and is skeptical.

This comes after another incident two weeks ago, when Purcell’s office sent a Spanish-language leaflet to Spanish-speaking voters telling them the Nov. 6 election would be held on Nov. 8.

Purcell said it was just a typo. But Parraz said the repeated mistakes make him think that Purcell, a Republican, may be using her post for partisan purposes.

“The English version of that flyer had a 6 (Nov. 6 election date) and the Spanish version magically turns into an 8? Give me a break.” Parraz said.

“We’ve helped thousands of new voters participate in Arizona elections doing this, and she should be thanking us for that,” Parraz said. “If she wasn’t acting in a partisan way, how do you explain it? She’s better than that. She needs to either shut her mouth or set the record straight.”

Camacho said the party has always had a cooperative relationship with Purcell and that he hopes that Purcell will be inclined to retract what she said and clarify what is and is not prohibited.

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