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Legislature gets aggressive on election reform in wake of 2012 voting delays

Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, chairs the Senate Election Committee. (Cronkite News Service Photo by AJ Vicens)

Lawmakers have been rushing to pass election reform measures this year, hoping to enact laws that would thwart the type of problems that marred the 2012 election.

Election reform was one of the themes that quickly emerged in this legislative session. Before the session even started, lawmakers were drafting bills to attack election-related problems, including technical reforms, making the process run more smoothly, ethics reform for lawmakers and lobbyists, and increasing campaign contribution limits for politicians and political committees.

Though lawmakers have already killed some elections-related measures in committee, many reforms have already been approved by the House or Senate and appear poised to become law this year.

Election Day Problems

One of the biggest challenges for elections officials across the state was the record-high percentage of provisional ballots, which take more time and work to process. They were a major cause of delays in arriving at the final vote count in some hotly contested races. Most voters who cast provisional ballots were on the Permanent Early Voters List and automatically received a ballot in the mail. But they went to the polls instead of submitting their early ballots.

Republican Sen. Michele Reagan of Scottsdale, who chairs the new Senate Elections Committee, introduced SB1261 to cut down on provisional ballots. The bill would remove people from the early voting list if they didn’t vote an early ballot in both the primary and general election for the two most recent general elections for federal office, and they did not respond to a letter asking if they wanted to stay on the list. It would also require request forms to include a statement that would clearly explain that the voter is signing up to receive an early ballot automatically.

Elections officials support the measure and say that it would cut down on provisional ballots. But opponents like Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix argue the bill would disenfranchise voters and strip many of the right to vote from home.

“When we start hampering someone’s ability to exercise their most fundamental right, their right to vote, I think that’s when we have to say no,” Gallardo said during a committee hearing on the bill.

The bill passed through the Senate on a party-line vote and was sent to the House.

Early voters turning in their ballots at the polling place on Election Day also delayed the vote count. Reagan’s SB1003 aims to cut down on “late early ballots” by banning the practice of picking up ballots at the last minute for other people and dropping large numbers of ballots off at the polls.

Opponents argue the bill would disproportionately impact Latino groups and the Democratic Party, which offer to pick up ballots for people who can’t make it to the polls on Election Day.

“Over the last four years there have been many advocates throughout the state, organizations out there that have been working really hard to make sure that many folks, mostly low income, minority voters, have a opportunity to vote,” Gallardo said during the debate on the bill.

“Unfortunately, this particular bill goes right to the heart of many of these organizations and the work they have done in recent years.”

The bill passed through the Senate on a party-line vote and was sent to the House.

When former Senate President Russell Pearce was ousted in a historic

2011 recall election by a fellow Republican, he and his supporters claimed the coup would not have been possible if it weren’t for the flawed recall process, which doesn’t allow for a primary election — just one winner-take-all vote.

Republican Rep. Steve Smith of Maricopa, a close ally of Pearce, introduced HB2282, which would add a primary election to the recall process, in an attempt to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The bill must get approval from the Rules Committee before heading to a debate and vote from the full House.

Last year, Republican Rep. Michelle Ugenti of Scottsdale passed an elections consolidation bill forcing all cities and towns to hold their elections in August and November of even numbered years to coordinate with state congressional, legislative and statewide elections. But the bill was silent about what to do with to do with city council members and mayors who were elected in, and have expiring terms in, odd-numbered years. Ugenti introduced HB2527 this year to give some clarity: Cities can pick whether to shorten or lengthen terms for politicians — whichever suits them best.

The bill awaits a debate and vote from the full House.

Campaign Contributions

Two Republican-sponsored bills that would increase the maximum campaign contributions candidates are allowed to accept are also advancing. HB2306, which the House approved, would double the amount candidates can accept from all combined political committees, excluding political parties, to $32,200 for legislative candidates and

$220,000 for statewide candidates. The other measure, HB2593, would increase the maximum contribution limit that a candidate may accept from individuals and individual political committees, excluding political parties, to $2,500, and $5,000 from certain political committees. It also removes the maximum limit that an individual may contribute during the election as a whole.

Democrats aren’t necessarily opposed to raising the contribution limits; Arizona’s limits are some of the lowest in the nation.  But they argue that because the voter-approved Clean Elections Act modified the contribution limits, any changes to the limits would require approval from three-fourths of the lawmakers in both chambers, as required by Proposition 105.

“This is not going to pass the Prop. 105 test, I’m absolutely confident of that,” House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said.  He noted that Democrats could provide the needed votes for that three- fourths majority if the bill was amended to increase the amount of money Clean Elections candidates receive.

The House approved HB2306 and was sent to the Senate, while HB2593 awaits debate and a vote from the full House.

Ethics And Transparency

Following Attorney General Tom Horne’s recent campaign finance controversy, lawmakers are attempting to overhaul the way violations are investigated and enforced.

SB1326 is a bipartisan bill that aims to create more accountability and enforcement by renaming the Clean Elections Commission as the Public Accountability Commission. It would establish the commission as an autonomous entity in charge of investigation, compliance and enforcement for campaign finance matters, financial disclosure matters, and registration and regulation of lobbyists. Currently those responsibilities fall under the Secretary of State’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office. But the secretary of state and Clean Elections Commission agree that a non-elected independent commission would better serve the aim of encouraging transparency and enforcing rules.

Because SB1326 would make changes to the voter-approved Clean Elections Commission, it will require approval from three-fourths of the lawmakers in each chamber. The bill still awaits action by the Senate Rules Committee before it can move to debate and a vote from the full Senate.

Two years after the Fiesta Bowl scandal shook the Legislature, a bipartisan group of lawmakers signed on to SB1332, which would require more transparency from lobbyists. The bill would require expenditure reports to be filed monthly, instead of quarterly, and would decrease he maximum value of expenditures that are exempt from reporting to $10 from $20. The bill would require lobbyists to provide legislators with a declaration of the value of certain expenditures, and would require legislators to annually report each expenditure made by a lobbyist.

The bill would also strengthen the penalties for violations of lobbyist regulations and reporting requirements to a class 6 felony for violations involving amounts of less than $3,000 and to a class 5 felony for violations involving $3,000 or more. And it would include in the definition of lobbying any attempt to influence the passage or defeat of legislation by communicating with the governor or the governor’s staff.

The bill must get the OK from the Senate Rules Committee before heading to the full Senate for debate and a vote.

When Secretary of State Ken Bennett decided to co-chair Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign in Arizona after explicitly saying he wouldn’t, lawmakers decided to outlaw the practice. SB1335 states that except for the secretary of state’s own candidate campaign committee, the secretary is prohibited from serving as an officer or honorary officer of a candidate’s campaign committee if he is the filing officer for that candidate.

That bill awaits a debate and full vote from the Senate.

Clean Elections

No legislative session would be complete without an attempt to get rid of the Citizens Clean Election Commission.  Republican Rep. Paul Boyer of Phoenix introduced HCR2026, which would, if approved by voters on the 2014 ballot, de-fund the program completely and instead put that money into school districts and charter schools for maintenance and operations.

Boyer argues that voters approved the Clean Elections Commission because of false advertising, and the system should be called what it really is — public money for politicians. Besides that, Clean Elections was sold as a way to moderate the political atmosphere in state politics, and critics say it hasn’t worked. Boyer said the money could better be used to pay for education than for political campaigns, and he hopes the voters will agree with him.

“I’m always looking for money for education, and this isn’t the only avenue, but it’s one more avenue I’m looking down to help fund education,” he said.

The bill still needs approval from the Rules Committee before moving to the full House for debate and a vote.

Ballot Measures

Ugenti worries that voters don’t realize when they vote for a ballot measure, the Legislature can’t amend or change it without a three- fourths vote from both chambers. So she introduced HB2007 to add a notice to ballots, ballot information and advertisements clearly stating that once approved, the measure is very difficult to change.

Ugenti likened ballot measures to non-returnable items at the store, and said voters have a right to know that there are almost no take- backs with ballot measures. The bill passed through the House with the support of all the Republicans and one Democrat, and now awaits action in the Senate.

Republican Rep. David Stevens of Sierra Vista authored HCR2033 to make sure that voters still stick by their past decisions when it comes to ballot measures. If approved by the Legislature and a vote on the 2014 ballot, the measure would require an eight-year limit on any initiative or referendum that authorizes or requires the expenditure of state money, and would automatically re-refer ballot measures to the voters every eight years. Any ballot measures that require state money that were originally voted on more than eight years before the

HCR2033 is approved would be placed on the 2016 general election ballot for reauthorization by the voters.

The bill awaits action in the Rules Committee before going to a full House vote.

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