Ignoring the testimony of county election officials, Republican lawmakers voted to bar Arizona voters who receive their ballot by mail from turning them in by hand.
On party lines, the four GOP senators on the chamber’s Judiciary Committee advanced SB 1046, which would restrict how voters who sign up for the Permanent Early Voting List, known as PEVL, can cast a ballot. Current law allows them to return those ballots by mail, or hand-deliver them to election facilities at any time leading up to or on election day.
Some voters like to wait until the last minute – 228,000 mail-in ballots were dropped off at polling sites on the day of the 2018 general election, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita said eliminating those so-called “late-early” ballots will help speed up the announcement of election results, and would temper frustrations from the 2018 election, when several races were too close to call for more than a week after election day.
County officials testified that the Scottsdale Republican’s logic is flawed.
Whether they’re mailed in or not, people like holding onto their ballots as long as possible, said Jennifer Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, so ballots mailed at the last possible second would still pile up on election day, too.
“The counties believe voters should have the opportunity to turn in that ballot regardless of when they received that ballot,” Marson said.
If more voters use the alternative provided in Ugenti-Rita’s proposal by voting in person on election day, in the event they forget to mail their ballots back on time, voters could experience longer lines at the polls and more costly elections, said Rivko Knox of the Arizona League of Women Voters.
That’s really all beside the point, Knox said, because the bill is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. While Republicans have complained that ballots took too long to count, recorders took roughly the same amount of time to count votes in 2014, 2012, and other elections, Knox said.
“The difference was that several elections were very close,” she said, meaning competitive races highlighted the vote-county process. Many of those close races resulted in victories for Democrats to key statewide offices, even after initial vote tallies on election night favored some Republican candidates.
Yavapai County Recorder Leslie Hoffman said there is one scenario in which Ugenti-Rita’s bill would speed up the vote-counting process.
“It might save time by reducing turnout,” Hoffman said. “We don’t want that.”
That’s when Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, a Gilbert Republican and chair of the Judiciary Committee, cut off Hoffman’s testimony, calling it “unfounded speculation.”
Ugenti-Rita later dismissed the criticisms of the county election officials as beyond their purview.
“This is a policy discussion,” and it’s well within the Legislature’s right to set the rules for how recorders conduct elections, Ugenti-Rita said. “For them to say it’s not a good piece of legislation and it’s disenfranchising voters, that’s really beyond their scope.”
The committee’s three Democrats criticized the bill for ignoring the expert advice of officials who conduct the elections. In addition to failing to produce more timely election results, Sen. Martin Quezada cited testimony that the policy change would sow confusion among voters.
“We’re taking away an option that’s used a lot because we simply don’t like it,” the Phoenix Democrat said. “We haven’t even identified that we’re solving the problems the sponsor is trying to solve.”
Farnsworth said that Arizona voters will still have ample opportunity to vote.
“We already give both options,” Farnsworth said, referring to the state’s dual system of mail-in ballots and day-of voting. “We’re just suggesting, choose one or the other.”
Republicans also approved another Ugenti-Rita to bill that requires voters to produce ID to cast ballots at in-person early voting sites. Current law only requires ID to vote on the day of the election – early ballots, whether cast in person or by mail, have historically used a voter’s signature as their ID.
Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Tucson, said she feared SB 1072 would disenfranchise older and low-income voters who might not have access to a traditional driver’s license for identification.
Democrats and Republicans did find one bill to agree on.
SB 1072, also sponsored by Ugenti-Rita, would create uniform standard for all 15 counties in Arizona when allowing voters to “cure” their ballot and ensure it’s counted.
As approved, the bill only provides a curing process for early ballots with missing or “illegible” signatures during a period of five business days after an election. Ugenti-Rita expressed willingness to amend it and provide opportunities to cure a vote if there’s an issue with the signature beyond legibility.