Gov. Doug Ducey on May 24 signed into law a measure that prevents government officials from changing election deadlines established by statutes.
HB2794, sponsored by Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Gilbert, was created to address changes in voter registration deadlines that occurred during the November 2020 general election.
“This is something that we saw in an unprecedented election,” Hoffman said. “We saw all across the country, including here in Arizona, the attempt to change statutorily prescribed deadlines. This is a bill that says that in Arizona, the legislature as granted by the Constitution of the United States, has the authority for the management and administration of elections; that those deadlines should not be changed, and that if they are there is a penalty for doing so.”
Hoffman’s bill, which passed both the House and Senate by narrow margins of two and three votes respectively, received unanimous support from Republicans but was largely shunned by Democrats, who claimed that it violates separation of powers and gratuitously punishes election officials. Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, was the only member of her party who did not vote against the bill, instead opting to refrain from voting altogether.
A U.S. District Court judge in 2020 extended Arizona’s statutory deadline to register to vote by 2½ weeks. The judge accepted arguments by Mi Familia Vota and the Arizona Coalition for Change that the Covid pandemic and restrictions on travel, businesses and public gatherings imposed in March 2020 by Ducey made it difficult to sign up voters.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voided the ruling but allowed those who registered after the deadline to still vote. Republicans registered more voters than Democrats during the short extension.
“We’re adding a criminal component because we disagree with what the court did last year,” Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said. “We’re seeing a trend to now throw our election officials in jail when they do something we disagree with. It’s very concerning.”
While Democrats in the state legislature made their disdain for the bill very clear, they were not alone. Alex Gulotta, director of the Arizona chapter of All Voting Is Local, said the bill would create more problems than it would solve and that it could limit the ability of judges to resolve election cases.
“If that’s what we think this does, I think the bill may have constitutional problems,” Gulotta said. “If you bring your nominating petition to the recorder’s office five minutes before the deadline and they don’t want to take it, they refuse to take it because of your party, this [bill] says ‘a deadline’s a deadline, you don’t have a remedy.’ It’s bad policy.”
Gulotta also raised questions about the harsh penalty that comes with violating the law. Anyone who does so risks a class 6 felony conviction, which carries a maximum sentence of 5.75 years in prison.
“I’m very concerned,” he said. “It puts [election officials] in a position where to follow the court order, they have to put themselves at risk of a felony. That seems to be how it’s designed.”
The Republican legislators who sponsored the bill disagreed with Gulotta’s assertion that it undermined the role of the courts in determining how elections are held, arguing instead that the bill prevents individual election officials from influencing how the elections are run.
“The courts make a ruling on law,” House Government and Elections Committee chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said. “That’s how the courts have a say. When a single elections official cuts a deal [with a judge], that’s a lot different than a court saying ‘as a matter of law, you are wrong. You must do this.’”
Hoffman reiterated chairman Kavanagh’s arguments, stating that the courts and Legislature each play a part in determining the law, and that the bill simply clarifies the courts’ responsibility.
“[The bill] is simply further defining and providing clarity in the law,” he said. “The settlements that are reached in those courts or in those negotiations must comply with [this bill]. The legislature sets these deadlines for an intentional reason, and they should not be changed on a whim.”