Arizona Senate passes election overhaul bill

Arizona Senate passes election overhaul bill

In this Oct. 26, 2012, photo, members of the Native American Voters Alliance mark their ballots at an early voting center in Albuquerque, N.M. NAVA, the National Congress of American Indians and other groups have been working to turn around low voter participation that has persisted in Indian Country for decades. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
(AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

The Arizona Senate revived an election omnibus bill Thursday that could limit early voting participation after Republican leaders pressured their caucus to pass the measure in the final hours of the 2013 legislative session.

The legislation backed by state and local election officials seeks to trim the state’s permanent early voting list and limit who may return mail ballots for voters. Opponents portrayed the bill as a thinly-veiled effort to curb Democratic and Hispanic voter turnout.

The 16-13 vote came after the Senate initially voted against the bill late Thursday. Republican Sen. Steve Pierce changed his vote and helped the measure pass when it was brought back for reconsideration. The House voted 33-26 earlier on Thursday to advance House Bill 2305.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer would not say on Thursday whether she would sign the measure into law.

Senate President Andy Biggs gave a passionate speech urging opponents to reconsider when it became clear the measure would not pass during the first vote.

“This particular bill, this critical bill, it does a variety of things and it actually is supported by every county recorder in the state,” Biggs said. “It’s supported by multiple groups that are interested in elections that have to deal with the ramifications of what we do. This bill is truly one of the most important bills that we are going to vote on in this legislative session.”

Proponents said the proposed changes would help reduce voter fraud and streamline the state’s early voting list. Those voters receive mail ballots.

“This is the right thing to do and the state would be better off for it,” said Republican Sen. Al Melvin, of Tucson.

The debate underscored the GOP’s slim majority after Democrats and moderate Republicans worked in the final days of the session to advance Gov. Jan Brewer’s Medicaid expansion plan amid opposition from Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin.

Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, who advocated for the election changes throughout the session, noted that lawmakers in the House and Senate had compromised and folded several bills into the omnibus bill to increase its odds of passage.

“I find it very disturbing that it is up to one person,” she said. “If our votes don’t matter at this point, maybe it is time to shut it down.”

When the bill returned for a second vote, it was Democrats’ turn to fume.

Sen. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix accused Republicans of allowing partisanship to trump good policy.

“The votes we are seeing up on the board have nothing to do with policy,” he said. “It’s not about what’s in the best interest of Arizona.”

Under the bill, election officials would be able to remove voters from the permanent early voting list if they didn’t vote by mail in the two most recent general elections. Voters could stay on the list if they returned a completed notice within 30 days confirming their intent to vote by mail in the future. Elected officials proposed the change because too many voters were showing up at local precinct places to vote after receiving mail ballots, fueling accusations of voter fraud.

Republicans also want to ban political committees and organizations from returning mail ballots for voters.

Hispanic voter outreach groups had lobbied against the bill.