Picking up ballots

Hank Stephenson//August 12, 2013

Picking up ballots

Hank Stephenson//August 12, 2013

BallotsMysterious visits to south Phoenix home become catalyst for new elections law

Rey Valenzuela was at his home in south Phoenix during election season last year when a young man, clipboard in hand, knocked on his door and asked for his wife.

Because the volunteer used her maiden name, and because Valenzuela has worked for the Maricopa County Elections Department for almost 23 years and recognized the political clipboard, he couldn’t help but ask the visitor what he was doing.

The man, who was in his early 20s, said he “worked for elections” and he was checking if they had received early ballots.

It was Saturday, and Valenzuela was wearing his Maricopa County Elections Department shirt around the house. When he tried to call attention to this shirt, the young man didn’t get the hint. So Valenzuela told him straight up that he worked for the Maricopa County Elections Department and he had never seen the man around.

So the visitor backtracked on his statement, explaining that he was volunteering for a political organization helping with the election by registering people to vote. He then quickly left.

But a few months later, just before the November election, Valenzuela was again at home, and there was a knock at the door. His wife answered.  She then went into the living room to ask Valenzuela what someone from the Elections Department was doing picking up ballots on a Saturday.

They weren’t, he told her. The Elections Department doesn’t pick up ballots.

Impersonating an elections official is a class 5 felony, punishable by up to a year-and-a-half in jail.

Valenzuela never called the police on the volunteers who misrepresented themselves. He said he didn’t see any malice in their intentions, and thought the volunteers were trying to beef up their credentials to make their job of collecting ballots easier.

Their statements were misleading, but not an outright lie, he said.

But his story became a talking point for supporters of HB2305, the wide-ranging changes to election law approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor that would, among other things, outlaw the ballot pickups practiced by any organized political group.

One portion of the law would make it a class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for volunteers from any political organization to offer to deliver early ballots to elections officials.

Opponents of the law are trying to refer HB2305 to the ballot, allowing voters a chance to stop the law from taking effect. They will need 86,405 valid signatures of registered Arizona voters before a Sept. 12 deadline to block the law from going into effect until voters can weigh in during the November 2014 election.

Helping voters

Randy Parraz is president of Citizens for a Better Arizona, one of the groups that has been effectively using ballot tracking and delivery techniques to increase voter turnout and grow the electorate in recent years. Now his organization is focused on getting signatures to block the law.

Since 2010, Democrats and a handful of Latino get-out-the-vote groups like Citizens for a Better Arizona have registered tens of thousands of new voters.  Many are Latinos or other low-efficacy voters who lean Democratic. They encourage voters to sign up to the Permanent Early Voting List.

The organizations keep tabs on who has returned their ballots, and remind those voters who signed up for an early ballot to vote.

Volunteers go door-to-door during election season, asking people if they would like to help filling out their ballots, and offering to deliver the ballots to elections officials.

In the 2012 election, Citizens for a Better Arizona alone delivered 4,000 ballots to elections officials.

Parraz said he wouldn’t give his ballot to a volunteer he didn’t know — but he lives for elections and doesn’t need help or a reminder.

He said most of the voters his group helps wouldn’t bother voting if volunteers didn’t come to the door and remind them, often in the final days of the election, when it is already too late to put the ballots in the mail.

He said the people his group talks to never before had someone come to their door and tell them their vote matters. When they hear that, they become excited to vote and are grateful that someone cares enough to remind them and help them, he said.

“People invite us in, give us water, they bring everyone else, especially the younger kids like 18-year-olds. The parents say, ‘Sit down, we’re going to fill out our ballots right now,’” he said.

He said politicians who pushed the law are out of touch with these voters, who have never been engaged in politics before and need a push to get involved.

Hasn’t happened, but it could

Supporters of the law have made liberal use of the term “voter fraud” and have said Latino get-out-the-vote groups were abusing their ability to pick up ballots, and can’t be trusted.

They point to the case with Valenzuela — another elections official within the department has a very similar story — as reason to outlaw the practice of picking up ballots.

Several supporters have implied that the groups committed voter fraud — or could commit voter fraud — by picking up ballots and throwing away Republican votes.

Jonathan Paton, who works for Stop Voter Fraud, one of the two political committees formed to fight the referendum effort against HB2305, said while he doesn’t have proof of anything like that happening, it just looks “sketchy.”

Paton says even if fraud doesn’t happen, the possibility of voter fraud is reason enough to enact the law.

“They literally control thousands of ballots, when they deliver, if they deliver them. Are they combing through the ballots and finding out this guy is probably going to vote the wrong way, so maybe we’ll just forget to take his ballot to the polls,” he said.

Tossing Ballots

In order to be counted, early ballots must be sealed in an envelope and signed by the voter. While Valenzuela said it would be impossible to open the envelope and change a vote, they could easily toss a ballot into the trash if they didn’t think the voter supported their candidates or causes.

The only seemingly smoking-gun case of a ballot getting thrown out came during the most recent primary election, when a voter contacted elections officials and police to say he had been victim of a ballot theft.

The voter said he gave his ballot to a volunteer for a political campaign who told him he would turn it in to elections officials. The ballot was already spoiled, and the voter wanted to return it so he could get a new early ballot.  Nine days later, when he still didn’t get a new ballot, the voter’s friend called elections officials and police to report the incident.

The friend informed police of a vague law against “knowingly delaying a ballot” that can land offenders with a class 3 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and fines.

But the case was never prosecuted because no crime had been committed, Valenzuela said.

The volunteer actually delivered the ballot as promised.  But he didn’t know he needed to hand it directly to officials and explain that the voter needed a new ballot. Instead, he had dropped it in the box for drop-off ballots, which elections officials only checked once a week.

Still, Valenzuela said it could happen, and worries that leaving ballots in the hands of young, untrained volunteers with no oversight could lead to disaster “That (crime) didn’t occur, but the potential is there,” Valenzuela said.

But Parraz said the first question his volunteers ask is if the voter supported their candidate. If not, the volunteers don’t offer to deliver the ballot, and just move onto the next house.

Because they only collect ballots from people who openly support their preferred candidates, they have a vested interest in making sure those ballots arrive to elections officials.

Unless there is proven voter fraud, the law will only prohibit people from voting and outlaw the practice of helping people vote, Parraz said.

“There are laws already that say you can’t trash someone’s ballot.

Let’s be very clear, what they’re saying is you can’t help someone vote successfully. They’re saying if you’re successful in helping someone vote, you should go to jail,” he said.

Civil disobedience

Parraz said if the referendum effort against HB2305 is unsuccessful, his group will continue to pick up ballots, even though it will be illegal.

He said the group would continue to walk the streets and pick up ballots, but would probably drop them off in the mail instead of openly walking them into elections officials.

“How are they going to enforce it? How are they going to prove it?” he asked. “I think there are some laws that are just wrong. And you have to call the question. Then you can trigger a lawsuit,” he said.

Early ballots by the numbers

Calls to Maricopa County Elections Department regarding volunteers suspected of not delivering ballots: 20-25.

Known cases where volunteers didn’t turn in ballots: 0.

Ballots that get-out-the-vote groups turned in to Maricopa County Elections Department: roughly 12,000.

Cases of voter fraud in Arizona during 2011-2012, according to Secretary of State Ken Bennett’s testimony before a U.S. Senate panel in December 2012: 15.

Cases of voter fraud associated with get-out-the-vote groups: 0.

Votes cast in the 2012 primary and general elections combined: 2,995,587.

Arizona voters on the Permanent Early Voting List: 1.7 million.