A GOP lawmaker wants to allow candidates to keep their home addresses secret, an effort that could make it more difficult to verify that an elected official or candidate for office lives in the district they claim to represent.
Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said she’s sponsoring HB2071 out of concerns for privacy and public safety. The bill would give candidates for any elected office the option of requesting that elections officials withhold their home address from the public record.
And if a winning candidate had made the request to keep his or her address private, it would stay secret throughout the person’s term in office.
The bill would also allow candidates for office to circulate the nominating petitions needed to qualify for the ballot without listing their address. Instead, they could merely state that the candidate lives within the district’s boundaries.
The legislation would apply to candidates at all levels of government in Arizona, from statewide office to school boards.
Candidates must submit nominating papers to elections officials and declare their home address. Those records are made available to the public when requested.
Townsend said that makes her uneasy.
“We live in a post-Gabrielle-Giffords-attack world, and, as a lawmaker, it’s uncomfortable knowing, especially being a widowed mother of teenagers at home, (there’s) people on my property,” she said.
Townsend wouldn’t provide details of any incidents that have happened at her home, but said there have been times when strangers have been on her property or placed things near her home.
Other lawmakers have had similar experiences, Townsend said. She cited an incident in the 2014 campaign, when someone attached the Islamic State flag to Rep. Michelle Ugenti’s campaign signs “around the corner” from Ugenti’s home.
Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, posted a photo of the vandalized signs on her Facebook page in October.
“They can find me. Even if nothing’s ever happened, I still don’t like the idea,” Townsend said.
Elections attorney Tom Ryan said it was ironic that Townsend cited Ugenti’s concerns as a reason to sponsor a bill that would make information about the Arizona Legislature, and candidates for it, less transparent.
“Michelle Ugenti is the poster child for why this is a horrible law, as is (Rep.) Darin Mitchell, as is (Sen.) Carlyle Begay,” Ryan said.
Ryan worked for clients challenging the residencies of both Begay, D-Ganado, and Mitchell, R-Litchfield Park. The Arizona Capitol Times reported in November that Ugenti may have violated election law by casting a ballot in the wrong precinct in the August primary election.
Keeping a candidate or lawmaker’s address public “allows citizens who are concerned if they’re truly being represented or not to investigate for themselves, to find out the truth,” Ryan said.
Making those addresses secret would “promote political skullduggery” and make it easier for a candidate to run for office in a district he or she doesn’t live in, Ryan said.
If Townsend has ever felt threatened in her own home, she needs alert the proper authorities, not sponsor legislation to address her concerns, he said.
“Respectfully, if Kelly Townsend is having a problem, she needs to go to the police,” Ryan said.
When asked if she had reported any incidents to the police, Townsend said she hadn’t.
“My father, being a police officer, told me it’s not always wise to do that,” she said.
There was a threat made last year on social media that Townsend said she reported to the DPS officer assigned to the state House of Representatives, though she wouldn’t discuss it in detail.
Former state senator Ron Gould said if the bill’s aim is protecting candidates and public officials from harm, it’s unnecessary.
“If you’re actually doing your job, you’re out talking to your constituents,” Gould said. “It’s not that tough for somebody to run somebody else down, so I don’t think it really accomplishes anything.”
Hiding a candidate’s or elected official’s home address from the public goes against the idea of a republican government, under which neighbors are sending one of their own to the state Capitol to represent them.
“It kind of creates a wall of elitism between elected officials and their constituents,” Gould said.
Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, said she signed on as a co-sponsor to HB2071 because she sympathized with Townsend’s concerns, and that some elected officials may have legitimate concerns for their privacy and public safety.
“Maybe they feel that their lives are in danger,” Miranda said, explaining that a candidate could be a victim of domestic violence and need to keep his or her address out of the public eye. And if there’s ever a concern that a candidate or lawmaker is lying about where they live, the Secretary of State’s Office can verify their address, Miranda said.
“That’s what the secretary of state is for,” Miranda said. “If people are questioning residency, the secretary of state knows where the candidate resides.”
However, the Secretary of State’s Office does not verify that candidates live where they claim when someone files nominating paperwork to run for elected office, spokesman Matt Roberts said.
“There’s no statutory requirement for us to verify someone lives where they live,” Roberts said. “The statement they sign, they’re attesting that everything on there is true, so we’re accepting that on its face.”
The only case in which the office may investigate a candidate’s residency is if an official complaint is filed, he said.
However, it may prove difficult to even determine if a complaint need be filed if a candidate’s address is kept secret – a complication that could potentially lead to frivolous complaints.
Roberts noted that candidates’ addresses aren’t readily posted online. While a statement of organization for a candidate’s committee is posted online, the address listed for the committee is not always a home address. However, the paperwork containing the home address of a particular candidate can be requested under the state’s public records law.
Townsend said she was nervous about sponsoring the bill, and even more reluctant to discuss it, expressing concern that the simple act of sponsoring this legislation may prompt people to come to her home.
After sharing her reason for sponsoring the bill, Townsend urged a Capitol Times reporter not to print her comments about fearing for the safety of her and her children.
“If something happens, it’s on your hands,” the legislator said.
Ryan noted that his brother, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Ryan, received death threats from supporters of former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas while Thomas was in office.
Thomas was disbarred in 2012 after a disciplinary panel determined he abused his power as county attorney by pursuing false criminal against county supervisors, judges and other political.
Like Townsend, Ryan’s brother has a family, a wife and kids, he said.
“Tim did what you should do: He turned it over to court security,” Ryan said.
If, after reporting an incident to the proper authorities, Townsend is still that concerned with her safety or privacy, Ryan questioned why she would stay in public office.
“If it’s too scary, maybe you ought to consider a career change,” he said.