Insisting there must be fraud taking place, a Republican-controlled House committee voted Monday to make it a felony to take someone else’s early ballot to a polling place.
The 4-2 party-line vote on HB2023 came after a series of speakers, many with links to the Republican Party, said they have heard of situations where groups collect ballots and then choose to turn in only those where the vote is likely to go the way they want. They said that can be as simple as figuring out the political registration of the person whose ballot is being picked up to peering through less-than-opaque envelopes.
More than two hours of testimony, however, turned up no actual evidence beyond hearsay. Even state Elections Director Eric Spencer conceded he could point to no specific instances where someone tossed away someone else’s early ballot, something that already is a crime.
But Rep. Michele Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who chairs the House Education Committee, said it should not be necessary to wait before outlawing what has been termed “ballot harvesting.”
“It increases the opportunity for fraud to exist,” she said.
And Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said it’s irrelevant whether there is fraud or not.
“What is indisputable is that many people believe it’s happening,” he said.
“You can’t really argue with that,” Mesnard continued. “And I think that matters.”
Arizona is among a majority of states that provide early ballots.
Voters can request to have a ballot mailed to them to be filled out at home. They then can either mail it back in a prepaid envelope or take it directly to a polling place.
But Arizona law also permits a voter to give that ballot to anyone else to return. Spencer said 18 states have specific prohibitions against that.
Spencer said his boss, Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan, believes it should be “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
He said the envelopes used by some counties — he did not name names — are thin enough to enable someone who collects them to see how someone voted.
“That creates a big temptation to cheat,” Spencer said.
HB 2023 would leave exceptions for family members, those living in the same household, and caregivers for those living in nursing homes or similar facilities.
There is no question but that outside groups are collecting ballots.
Stacey Morley, lobbyist for the Arizona Education Association, said teachers and parent groups will go to homes ahead of bond and override elections to make sure that people who have requested early ballots turn them in. Morley told lawmakers her group’s concern is maximizing voter participation in what are often low-turnout elections.
“We are very concerned this would make our teachers felons,” she said. The measure carries a presumptive one-year prison term for first-time offenders.
Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said she has personally taken someone else’s ballot to a polling place if there is a chance it would otherwise not arrive on time. Arizona law counts only ballots received by 7 p.m. on Election Day; those arriving later are not counted even if they are postmarked on time.
And Rep. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said there are portions of her rural district that do not have mail delivery, meaning someone who wants to return an early ballot has to make a special trip to the post office.
But Republican Richard Hopkins of Buckeye, who came in third in the three-way race for the two House seats in that district, told lawmakers that had it not been for such techniques “I would have been a member of this body.”
His proof? He said that the margin of votes for his Democratic foes, including Otondo and Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, were greater in the early ballots, including those he admitted were mailed legitimately, Ultimately, he lost by 188 votes.
A similar provision was approved by lawmakers in 2013 in a package of other changes that foes said were designed to curtail voting by minorities. But legislators repealed it after foes gathered enough signatures to force the issue to a public vote.
It is unclear whether approval this year will lead to a similar effort. But Will Gaona, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, suggested to legislators that its approval could lead to a lawsuit.
“It may infringe on protected First Amendment right activities,” he said.