Arizona governor’s election task force recommends new laws

Secretary of State Adrian Fontes said Thursday that closed-door meetings of a special gubernatorial task force on elections were necessary for "frank discussions" of the issues. With him is former Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell who is vice-chair of the panel. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Arizona governor’s election task force recommends new laws

A governor’s task force meeting behind closed doors approved recommending changes to election laws, a secrecy decision defended by a top aide to Gov. Katie Hobbs.

“We want people to vote in a very private manner and speak their minds freely,” said gubernatorial publicist Christian Slater. He said that’s why reporters were not invited to attend Thursday’s session – the second full meeting of the Governor’s Bipartisan Elections Task Force – a meeting at which vice-chair Helen Purcell said they approved 20 of 22 proposals put forward.

Instead, the governor’s office made task force members available for several questions after the session.

Anyway, Slater said, there is no reason for the public to be concerned that measures are being adopted behind closed doors.

“It’s just the first step in advancing the policy recommendations,” he told Capitol Media Services. “It’s not as if these are the final things that are coming out of the task force.”

Yet what emerged from Thursday’s meeting as already approved appears to be specific.

For example, one seeks legislation to address interfering with voters while they are dropping off their ballots.

That became a big issue when a group called Clean Elections USA, which contends the 2020 election was fraudulent, had volunteers, some wearing full tactical gear and bearing arms, monitoring ballot drop boxes. It took a federal judge issuing a temporary restraining order to shut down some of the group’s activities by forbidding anyone from taking videos of those dropping off their ballots and requiring anyone openly carrying a weapon or wearing body armor to remain at least 250 feet from any drop box.

Also among the recommendations mix are standards for voting-related equipment aside from what already is required for ballot tabulators.

Much of the argument presented by failed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake about why her loss to Hobbs should be overturned was that printers at vote centers were producing ballots at a different size than the tabulators could read.

Other proposals that advanced include:

– Considering amending the law to deal with restoring voting rights for individuals who have had felony convictions;

– Ensuring a “consistent funding source” for the statewide voter registration system;

– Allowing people already registered to vote who move before Election Day to cast a ballot in their new county;

– Setting specific deadlines to conduct recounts when they are necessary.

Helen Purcell, vice-chair of the task force, which Hobbs chairs, said the meetings were scheduled in secret because “I’m following the advice of the governor’s office.”

But Purcell, a Republican and former Maricopa County recorder, said she does not believe that the closed-door meetings will undermine public confidence in what the panel ultimately recommends when it meets again in October.

“We’ve had a lot of frank discussions between people from not just sort of the election world but people who are around that world,” she said.

“We’re trying to come up with solutions,” Purcell continued. “Some of it may be legislative. Some of it may be best practices.”

And Purcell said she agreed with the governor’s decision to start the process behind closed doors.

So will any of this ever be open?

“Could be,” she responded. “I don’t know at this point.”

Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat like the governor, said he understands the desire for closed-door discussions.

“While I’m a big fan of transparency almost all the time, sometimes you’ve just got to have those hardscrabble discussions among folks when you’re talking about what you think might or might not get through the Legislature, and why,” he said.

“Some of those opinions, you just hold them closer,” Fontes said. “But among trusted professionals we’ve got to have those open and frank discussions.”

Anyway, he said, legislation is not being proposed “at this time.” Ditto, Fontes said, for changes to the Elections Procedures Manual, a guide for election officials adopted by the secretary of state that has the force of law.

“It’s not just a question of ‘trust us,’ ” he said. “It’s a question of where are we at in the process.”

As it turned out, even though the meeting was billed as closed and Slater told reporters they could not come, there actually was one in the room.

Mary Jo Pitzl of the Arizona Republic told Capitol Media Services she simply walked in. And while members were told there was a reporter present, she was allowed to stay for the more than two hours of the meeting even though Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cazares-Kelly raised a question about her presence.

Slater blamed it on “staff error” but would not say why Pitzl was allowed to stay – or why he did not notify other reporters who had been told not to come because the meeting was closed.

Pitzl’s presence apparently did not deter the panel from discussing and approving the various proposals.

Cazares-Kelly said much of what is before the panel is how to ensure that elections are free, fair and secure.

“Every proposal that we have been discussing have either been talking about … the expansion of the transparency or security of the process,” she said. “We’ve also been talking a lot about the resources and additional things we want to provide to support our elections departments and our recorders’ offices.”

Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, also on the task force, said the question of money cannot be overstated.

“One of the hot-button issues has been resources,” said Bennett who formerly served as secretary of state. “I don’t think we spend enough money on elections to make sure that they are the quality and kind of elections in Arizona” that the state needs.

And then, he said, there’s the question of getting the necessary votes from a Republican-controlled Legislature – including some GOP lawmakers who continue to insist the 2020 and 2022 elections were rigged – and a Democratic governor.

“Money and politics,” said Bennett.

Not everything the panel was considering was approved.

Task force members rejected a proposal that would have required public facilities, including schools, to serve as polling locations when certain other conditions were met. They also did not adopt asking for creation of a special performance audit division for elections be created within the state Auditor General’s Office.

Also failing to get enough votes was a plan to require background checks for all permanent or long-term temporary staff who handle ballots, are involved in tabulation, or provide computer technical support.