A fight is brewing in Arizona over whether to switch to an all-mail ballot for the primary and general election in order to combat the spread of COVID-19.
A handful of states already operate their elections using a vote-by-mail process. While Arizona Democrats have long pushed to join those states, local election officials and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs are now seeking a temporary change during the coronavirus pandemic.
It comes off like a partisan issue, but there are some Republican election officials who agree that the current crisis is not normal and all-mail ballots are necessary, even if Republican lawmakers don’t feel the same way.
Hobbs, a Democrat, announced one day after the March 17 Democratic Presidential Preference Election that she would seek help from the GOP-controlled Legislature to make the temporary switch.
“We are in unprecedented territory,” Hobbs said. “We don’t know where things are going to be in August and November.”
The Legislature did not respond to Hobbs’ request before recessing on March 23, and it won’t take up the issue when it does return, Senate President Karen Fann said.
“My Republican caucus members are not in favor of that,” the Prescott Republican said. “This is more of a partisan issue.”
Conversations leading up to the March election were difficult and stressful, Hobbs said, adding that she does not want election officials, poll workers or voters to put their own health at risk to cast a vote.
“Arizona has a proven track record at being good with mail-in elections,” she said. In Arizona, voters can join the Permanent Early Voting List, or PEVL.
The state already has roughly 80% of its ballots cast by mail, with the 2018 election having the highest turnout yet for a midterm election at 2.4 million voters (roughly 1.92 million by mail). That election is what got Hobbs into her current position and brought more Democrats into office locally and nationally.
Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, also a Democrat, had a similar solution just days before the March 17 election. He tried to send all registered voters their ballots by mail, until Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich obtained a court order stopping him.
But now the state has more time to prepare, while watching COVID-19 get worse. On March 17, Arizona had 20 diagnosed cases and no deaths, and the Legislature was still in session.
As of April 9 there are more than 3,000 known cases with 89 deaths and those numbers are ever growing. There’s no telling what the numbers will look like come August or even November.
Hobbs said switching to an all-mail election is not an easy solution, but it is the right one and it’s common sense.
“I think it is absolutely irresponsible to not look at this as a feasible solution in the middle of this health crisis, and I for the life of me cannot understand why anyone would be opposed to it,” she said.
Opposition to all-mail elections should be easy enough to understand, said Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican who leads her caucus on election policy. Changing the law is simply unnecessary because anyone who wants to vote by mail already can by signing up for the Permanent Early Voting List, Ugenti-Rita
“It empowers voters because they’re the ones still in charge,” she said. “We should default to making sure the voter is in control instead of trying to shove an agenda down their throats.”
Ugenti-Rita vowed to do everything she can to prevent universal mail elections, adding that counties would do better to launch educational campaigns reminding voters that they can sign up for the early voting list, or vote early in person to avoid Election Day crowds.
County election officials are taking advantage of a public health crisis to push a longstanding policy goal that has never been popular at the Legislature, Ugenti-Rita said.
“It’s not necessary to require all mail-in voting since the option already exists for voters,” she said. “This is just people not letting a crisis go to waste.”
The Arizona Association of Counties has pushed since 2012 to give counties the ability to hold elections entirely by mail. Cities and towns already have the ability to hold local elections by mail, but under state law counties lack the authority to change how elections are held.
In previous years, counties have argued that mail elections will save money and that voters like the ability to vote by mail.
“All of those things are still true, but none of those things matter this year,” said Jenn Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties. “What matters this year is it’s a health crisis.”
Counties hire and train poll workers, most of whom fall in the 65 or older age range considered most at risk for severe cases of COVID-19. They expect to have to hire about 16,000 poll workers, but those volunteers are hard to find even in normal years, Marson said.
Counties have been asking for a temporary change to session law, rather than a permanent change to state statute, that will enable election officials to run mail elections for the August primary and November general election, then revert back to the normal way of running elections next year.
Hobbs has pushed for the same thing. In response to an op-ed in the Arizona Republic from Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, Hobbs said it was irresponsible and only makes it harder to protect voters’ safety.
“The opposition would make more sense if we were talking about blanket authorization for all vote-by-mail from now until eternity, but we’re not,” she said. “There’s literally not one true thing in the entire op-ed. It’s just wrong.”
The decision realistically needs to be made by April 15 for the August primary and June 15 for the general election, Hobbs said.
Bolick argued that switching to an all-mail ballot is more complicated, riskier and less accurate than voting in-person. She wrote that a ballot cast in-person is counted more accurately and securely than one mailed, the voting by mail lends itself to fraud and confusion in part because the mail isn’t secure, that it’s more expensive, and the counties will need to hire and train more people to switch to a vote-by-mail system.
Bolick, who sits on the House Elections Committee, also argued there’s a link between voter fraud and mail-only elections, which is another false claim.
“I think that is based on misinformation and flat out not knowing how the process works,” Hobbs said to that argument. “Voting by mail is very secure.”
Bolick did not return a request for comment.
A previous claim of voter fraud happened out of the Legislature in 2016 where then-Sen. Don Shooter said people cheat by microwaving already sealed ballots with a bowl of water so the ballots can be opened, altered and then resealed without anybody noticing.
The Arizona Capitol Times investigated this claim and disproved it.
Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert has also argued on Twitter that voting only by mail can lead to more opportunities for cheating in an election. It’s a narrative that President Donald Trump has pushed at least since the 2018 election in Arizona given the high volume of mail ballots.
At the time, Trump was disputed by both Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan. The latter had to thoroughly explain Arizona’s ballot counting process and why it takes longer than most states.
Trump then took it a step further saying people cheat with mail-in voting and it would be bad for Republicans. He said if registered voters are given the opportunity to vote by mail or absentee “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Trump also notably votes by mail.
Grantham said he thinks it’s the right of voters to vote in-person and considers voting during the pandemic as an essential service.
He said people can go to the grocery store during a pandemic, so why not vote in person?
Grantham has come under criticism for minimizing the pandemic at times, though his controversial Twitter comments have simmered down since saying only a small fraction of Arizonans have been infected with COVID-19 three weeks ago.
Local election officials also took umbrage with Bolick’s op-ed, calling it “inaccurate” and “misleading.”
Republican Pinal County Recorder Virginia Ross and Cochise County Elections Director Lisa Marra, who works for a Board of Supervisors with a Republican majority, said they spoke on behalf of the Arizona Recorders Association and the Election Officials of Arizona in an op-ed arguing it’s “crucial that the Legislature extend our ability to hold ballot-by-mail elections for state and federal elections.”
The duo wrote that it’s safer, cheaper and easier and wouldn’t compromise the integrity of elections, as Bolick claimed, noting that many cities and towns already hold all-mail elections.
“Mailing ballots to voters is less complicated and less expensive compared to the massive logistical undertaking of finding, staffing, equipping, testing, sanitizing and maintaining hundreds of voting locations across the state. Doing so is comparable to opening a new business overnight, and the staffing alone takes the equivalent of a small army,” they wrote.
Yavapai County Recorder Leslie Hoffman, a Republican, agreed with the two saying that because Arizona already has a lot of ballots cast by mail it would be a simple transition.
“We’ve got the system. We’ve got it down. We know how to do it right,” she said. “Voting is a tradition, not how you vote.”
Hoffman noted that one part of the argument that has consistently been forgotten about is even if 100 percent of voters sign up for PEVL or if the all-mail election happens, “you’d still have to open up a polling location in every precinct because that’s the way the law reads.”
Without a law change, that would still happen in the election, Hoffman said.
That law change, or any other in their favor, doesn’t seem likely at this point as the GOP majority Legislature is not inclined to move forward with the temporary change, Ducey has made no inclination to work with Hobbs or county officials on this and Hobbs thinks if it goes to court Brnovich will prevent it from happening.
Neither Ducey or Brnovich’s offices provided comment for this story.
Another argument against the idea comes from Tim La Sota, an attorney, who thinks Hobbs is overreacting to the pandemic.
He said a lot of people already vote by mail in Arizona and they still have that option, but going to all-mail for him is a “nonstarter” and that it’s less convenient for people in rural communities.
“The notion that we need yet another governmental solution, a one size fits all, I think just is the wrong solution,” he said.
His solution would be to send something out reminding voters how they can sign up for a mail-in ballot. Still, La Sota acknowledged that if the pandemic gets worse, his opinion might change.
Hobbs said if things don’t progress to an all-mail solution then what La Sota suggested is a backup plan.
“I would much rather spend that money mailing ballots instead because that makes it more expensive to have to do both,” she said.
All-mail ballots also cost less than the current election model, Hobbs said, though regardless of which option gets settled on, she said the office plans to use the $8 million from the federal CARES act to fund the final solution.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously reported that Cochise County Elections Director Lisa Marra works for a Republican County Recorder, when in fact, she works for the Board of Supervisors.