With the 2016 election season underway, Arizona Republicans passed a measure Thursday that would block voter-outreach groups from collecting and dropping off early ballots.
The measure’s outcome could impact the state’s general and primary elections if the bill is signed into law and enacted before elections take place.
Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, sponsored the proposal that would make it a Class 6 felony for anyone but a family member, roommate, caregiver, postal worker or candidate to collect early ballots from another person in an act sometimes called “ballot harvesting.”
During floor debate Thursday, Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, emphasized the measure is about protecting the integrity of every vote.
“This bill is about maintaining the integrity of the elections process because if people lose faith in it we have nothing,” Mesnard said.
Republicans also said the measure would help protect against voter fraud despite the Secretary of State’s Office saying there is no evidence of voter fraud involving early ballot collection.
Democrats railed against the measure saying the bill limits voter participation especially for working families in rural areas that have limited access to mailboxes and post offices. Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said more than 10,000 people in her district in San Luis would be disenfranchised.
“I don’t think a lot of people in this body understand what it is like to live in a rural area,” said Fernandez. “I want you to think about those people that can’t always go to the polls, that might be in wheelchair, that might be in a wheelchair and not have a caregiver.”
The House passed House Bill 2023 on a 34-23 vote Thursday. It now goes to the Senate.
The debate and vote mirrored the final day of the Legislature last session when a previous version of the measure nearly passed, but the Senate adjourned before the House had a chance to vote on the proposal.
Both Republicans and Democrats engage in early ballot collection efforts, though Democrats tend to collect more.
Sen. Martin Quezada, R-Phoenix, said earlier this week Republicans want the measure because Democrats are better at collecting early ballots.
Advocates for House Bill 2023 including Secretary of State Michelle Reagan say the measure is necessary to keep up with modern voting trends in a state that increasingly relies on early ballot voting, which makes up about 60 percent of all voting in the state.
Ugenti-Rita, who chairs the House Elections Committee, said she doesn’t think people should be in the business of collecting ballots from other people.
House Bill 2023 revives a key part of a major 2013 election law that was overturned after voters collected more than 146,000 signatures to halt the law.
At least 14 states restrict who can return a ballot and how ballots many they can collect, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A person may collect as many as 10 ballots in states such as Colorado while Arizona and Texas have no limits on how many ballots a person can collect and return.