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Elections priority for GOP lawmakers

Winged Victory atop the Arizona Capitol Building (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Lawmakers return to the Capitol Monday with a full agenda of things they want, ranging from reenacting what the Supreme Court voided to deciding what to do about previously approved tax cuts that are subject to voter repeal.

But the biggest fights may be over how much to alter state election laws. And at least some of the proposals stem from the continued charges that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Trump despite numerous lawsuits and audits that have shown those claims have no basis in fact.

A few of what lawmakers are expected to debate could be considered relatively innocuous, at least on the surface.

For example, Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, proposes to make the dates of the primary and general elections a state holiday. That would mean a day off for public workers.

Wendy Rogers

The plan, however, could run into business opposition because the same measure says anyone registered to vote “may be absent from the service or employment” to go vote and cannot be penalized or having his or her pay docked. By contrast, current law allows just a three-hour window — and one that is selected by the employer.

But Rogers has a more far-reaching measure, setting up a new Bureau of Elections within the governor’s office to investigate any allegations of fraud in any state, county or local election.

That new $5 million agency would have the power to not only subpoena individuals but also get a court order to impound election equipment and records. It would issue public reports but would be unable on its own to bring criminal charges.

There also will be debates over the actual process of how people vote.

Arizona already uses paper ballots. But they are tallied by machines. That had led to a series of claims — never proven — that the tabulated results could be manipulated, whether through stray marks on the ballots or entirely forged ones.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, brushed aside calls to have ballots counted entirely by hand as impractical.

Rusty Bowers

“If we’ve got seven months to wait for an election, then count away,” he said.

“Most people want it in a relatively short amount of time,” Bowers said. “And that’s what I’m interested in delivering.

But that excuse doesn’t hold water for Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who will head the Senate Government Committee, where Senate elections bills will be vetted.

“Do you want convenience or do you want secure elections,” she said. “Pick one.”

Anyway, Townsend said hand counts are possible.

Her solution? Break up each county into much smaller voting precincts. Then, on election night, the poll workers at each one would tally the ballots, with the machines there solely to compare the totals.

Kelly Townsend

Even if the state sticks with machine counts, there are proposals to address questions of accuracy of the equipment.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, supports increasing to 5% the number of precincts where there had to be a random hand count of votes following each election to compare with the machine totals. The current figure is 2%.

And for those who think that doesn’t go far enough, Mesnard also wants to allow anyone who has the money to pay the cost to demand a full recount of any race.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, is looking at the issue through a different lens, altering the law on when there has to be an automatic recount.

In most cases, that occurs when the margin of difference between the top two candidates is less than 0.1% or 200 votes, whichever is less. Ugenit-Rita, who is hoping to become the Republican nominee for secretary of state, the state’s chief election officer, wants to move that up to 0.5%.

That change is significant. Democrat Joe Biden won Arizona and its 11 electoral votes by 10,457 over Trump, a margin of just 0.3%. Had this measure been in effect in 2020, it would have required a recount of the more than 3.3 million ballots already cast.

In this May 2, 2018, file photo, Republican Rep. Mark Finchem argues against an amendment to the state budget proposed by minority Democrats, at the Capitol in Phoenix. PHOTO BY BOB CHRISTIE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Then there’s the question of the ballots themselves. And that has caught the attention of Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, who also is angling for the GOP nomination for secretary of state.

He has been pushing to replace the traditional ballots with paper that is specially encoded with things like watermarks, ballot identification numbers, QR codes and even embedded holograms.

There are other more far-reaching proposals, many stemming by claims by Trump and his supporters, even before the 2020 election, that early voting is subject to fraud.

Those claims continue, with GOP gubernatorial hopefuls Kari Lake and Matt Salmon signing a pledge to eliminate early voting. And Lake in particular continues to insist that Joe Biden did not win the vote, a contention she repeated in a Twitter post this past week claiming, without any proof, that 200 “bag loads of ballots” were dumped in Arizona.

So far, though, calls to eliminate the practice entirely have so far attracted little support.

In the 2020 election, of the 3.4 million people who voted, about 3 million cast early ballots. And many Republican lawmakers say their constituents like and use the opportunity to vote by mail.

But concerns about their validity remain.

Townsend wants to let people continue to get their ballots in the mail. But she seeks to address the allegations of dumped ballots by requiring voters to return them, in person, to a designated voting location.

In this November 6, 2020, photo, Arizona elections officials continue to count ballots inside the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office in Phoenix. The Arizona Senate got affirmation from a court that its subpoena for Maricopa County’s 2.1 million ballots and election equipment for an audit of the 2020 election is valid.

Rogers already has introduced a variant, saying that counties cannot set up drive-up drop boxes for ballots, saying that, except for people with disabilities, they have to walk it into a polling place or election office where someone is monitoring. But that bill would appear to continue to allow mail-in ballots.

And Mesnard continues to push for a requirement for anyone who casts an early ballot to confirm their identity with one of several forms of identification, like a driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number. Right now the only verification is done by county election officials who compare the signature on the ballot envelope with those already on file.

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said she is looking for measures that are designed to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.

Karen Fann

“I know that seems to be a cliche right now,” she said. But Fann said she is interested in discussing issues like the kind of paper used for ballots as well as ensuring that the chain of custody is not broken from the time a ballot is dropped into a box until the final count is over.

Townsend has a proposal to address the latter, making it a crime for anyone to “misplace” a ballot as well as to say that those which are not included in initial tallies are invalid, even if they turn up later, and cannot be counted.

There may be even more radical proposals waiting in the wings.

Last year Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, crafted a measure allowing the Arizona Legislature to overturn the results of a presidential election, even after the results had been certified and even after Congress had declared the winner, right up until noon on Jan. 20 when the president is sworn in.

Bolick did not respond to inquiries on whether she plans to reintroduce the measure.

There are other related measures that don’t directly affect how elections are run or votes are counted but also could influence the results.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, has been pushing for an investigation of social media platforms and search engines. He contends that some of these have been very biased towards one political party over another.

For example, he said, the algorithms used by search engines to determine results when someone asks a question can be altered so that certain answers or subjects come up first. And there have been claims that sites like Twitter and Facebook have a liberal bias, an argument based in part on decisions by some sites that banned Trump after they said he violated their policies by inciting people to violence, particularly ahead of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

What makes this an election-related issue is that Arizona law requires the reporting of “in-kind” contributions to a candidate, meaning a donation not of cash but of a service with financial value. And those who violate campaign finance laws with unreported in-kind donations can be fined.


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