Saying it will maintain election integrity, Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday signed legislation to make felons out of those who collect the ballots of others to bring them to the polls.
HB2023, which takes effect later this year, will allow judges to impose a presumptive one-year prison term and potential $150,000 fine for the current practice by civic and political groups of going out to see if people remembered to return the early ballots they had requested by mail.
Ducey’s signature came just hours after the measure gained final Senate approval on a party-line vote. And it came moments after state Republican Party Chairman issued a statement saying the change “restores the public’s respect for a process that had potentially dangerous implications and provided too much opportunity for fraud and tampering with an election.”
The governor’s own prepared comment echoed that sentiment.
“This bill ensures a secure chain of custody between the voter and the ballot box,” Ducey said. “We join 18 other states in this common-sense approach to maintaining the integrity of our elections.”
The partisan nature of the measure did not go unnoticed and uncommented.
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said there has never been a documented case of anyone actually picking up someone else’s ballot and then failing to deliver it.
“The problem we’re solving is that one party is better at collecting ballots than the other one,” he said.
“The other one tried and they failed,” Farley continued. “And, therefore, it’s time to change the rules.”
The legislation is based on claims of fraud — or at least potential fraud.
“A lot of shenanigans happen down in my neck of the woods,” said Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, referring to the area south of his home city.
Shooter said he got another email just Wednesday, ahead of the vote on this bill, from someone claiming to have evidence and witnesses of fraud.
“I’ve been told the way they do it is they collect the ballots early, they put them in a microwave with a bowl of water, steam them open, take the ballots,” he explained.
“If they like the way it’s voted they put them back in,” Shooter continued. “If they don’t like the way it’s voted, they lose that ballot.”
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, questioned Shooter about what happened.
“We did in fact report it to law enforcement,” Shooter responded.
“They reported it to the secretary of state’s office,” he continued, resulting in an inquiry more than a month later. “Nothing really happened other than the fact that they did a press release, I think, or something to that effect.”
That lack of any actual evidence also came up when the measure was first debated in the House. But here, too, it was brushed aside, with Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, saying it is irrelevant whether this is fraud or not.
“What is indisputable is that many people believe it’s happening,” he said in voting for the measure. “And I think that matters.”
That’s also the assessment of Tim Sifert, spokesman for the state GOP.
“It’s about the potential for fraud creating a lack of trust in the system,” he said. “And it’s not a good idea to simply ‘trust’ people handling thousands of ballots without credentials, oversight, identification.”
Republicans showed no interest in a proposal by Quezada to deal with at least part of the reason for ballot harvesting: the current requirement that ballots be received by election officials no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day.
Quezada said many people agree to give their ballots to others when they suddenly realize it’s too late to put them in the mail. He proposed changing the system to allow any ballot to be counted as long as it is postmarked by Election Day.
It was rejected.
The GOP majority also rebuffed a bid by Sen. Andrew Sherwood, D-Tempe, to reduce the penalty to a misdemeanor.
There are some exceptions to the penalties in HB 2023. They would not apply to family members, those living in the same household or certain caregivers who provide assistance to voters in various institutions.
Final Senate approval came over objections of Sen. Lynne Pancrazi, D-Yuma. She said that some rural residents of her district — including the area Shooter said was rife with “shenanigans,” don’t get home delivery of their mail.
Pancrazi that means having to go to the post office both to get the early ballot they requested as well as to return it. She said those who harvest ballots — something Pancrazi admitted she herself has done — are performing a public service.
That got no sympathy from Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake.
“Are you concerned about going door to door to be reminded to send in their house payment, their electricity payment, their car payments, or remember the birthday of their grandmother they might be mailing a letter?” Allen said. “I don’t think so.”
But Sherwood said there’s one big difference: If someone forgets to drop a bill in the mail there’s always the alternative of paying online. He said there is no such option for voting.
This isn’t the first time the Republican-controlled Legislature has attempted to outlaw ballot harvesting.
Similar language was included in a 2013 measure making comprehensive changes in state election laws, though the penalty at that time was only a misdemeanor.
In that case foes got enough signatures to put the legislation on hold until voters could get the last word at the next general election in 2014. So lawmakers agreed to repeal the measure themselves ahead of that election rather than risk what would happen at the polls.