GOP bill would restrict vote-by-mail options

Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, stands at her desk on the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives, before a vote to expel Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma. Ugenti-Rita’s allegations of sexual harassment by Shooter led a host of women and one man to air similar allegations against him. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

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.

GOP proposal would restructure Arizona redistricting

Critics warn that a plan to alter the membership of a commission responsible for drawing Arizona’s congressional and legislative district maps is designed to fail.

Senate President Steve Yarbrough (R-Chandler) (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Senate President Steve Yarbrough (R-Chandler) (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Senate President Steve Yarbrough conceded that by increasing the number of members on the Independent Redistricting Commission from five to eight, it’s likely that the commission would face gridlock.

“That is indeed going to create a probable 4-4 (vote) by my own estimation, but that is by design,” the Chandler Republican told the Senate Government Committee, which approved the resolution on a 4-3 partisan vote Wednesday.

Requiring a supermajority to approve maps during redistricting, a highly-contentious process that creates district maps that will be used for the next decade, will require commissioners to find true bipartisan consensus, Yarbrough said.

“I want the most bipartisan and fair process that we can design,” he said.

Joel Edman, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, said Yarbrough’s resolution makes the IRC more partisan, not less.

“If that’s his goal, he’s designed the exact wrong system to accomplish it,” Edman told the Arizona Capitol Times.

Currently, commissioners are chosen from a pool of 25 candidates vetted by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments. Republican and Democratic legislative leaders get to choose two commissioners each from the pool.

Those four commissioners must then select a fifth candidate, typically an independent or anyone who’s neither a Republican or Democrat, to serve as chair of the IRC.

SCR 1034, co-sponsored by nearly all Republican legislative leaders, eliminates the Commission on Appellate Court’s role in vetting candidates, and would let legislative leaders directly select three Republicans and three Democrats. The final two independent commissioners would also be chosen by legislative leaders, one each by the Republican and Democratic caucuses.

The current system is too easily “gamed” by one party, as Republicans and Democrats seek to install an IRC chair that will vote in their favor, Yarbrough said.

“That person effectively becomes the redistricting czar,” he said. “They control the process.”

As Yarbrough acknowledged, Democrats and Republicans would still choose independents who would be the most likely to serve their own interests. But that will force the IRC to reach amicable solutions, not settle for a tie, he said.

Edman said that’s not likely.

“That sets it up for gridlock,” Edman said. “To me, it’s set up to make the system fail, and to go back to politicians drawing their own lines.”

That’s exactly why voters approved Proposition 106 in 2000.  It took redistricting responsibilities away from the Legislature, unlike most states where state lawmakers are responsible for drawing maps that will determine the composition of districts they’ll campaign in for years. The Independent Redistricting Commission was designed to keep partisan legislators out of the redistricting process, said Rivko Knox of the Arizona League of Women Voters, and Yarbrough’s resolution would let them right back in.

The resolution would give the Legislature a chance to draw district maps to compete with the IRC’s, which the Legislature could refer to the voters. That vote would need to occur in between the 2020 and the 2022 General Elections.

If approved, those maps would render the IRC moot. The Legislature’s alternate redistricting plan would trump anything prepared by the IRC, so long as voters approve it.

Maps drawn by state legislators are often challenged in court. In recent weeks, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a ruling that the state’s Republican-drawn congressional districts were drawn to gerrymander districts in the GOP’s favor.

Republicans on the Government Committee touted the addition of a second independent voter on the commission, which Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said would better represent the proportion of the state’s registered voters who don’t side with a political party.

The resolution would also call for legislative districts to be drawn so that the population of the largest district doesn’t exceed the smallest district by more than 2 percent. Current districts vary much more wildly, which Kavanagh said creates districts that are overwhelmingly dominated by one of the top two political parties.

For that reason alone, Kavanagh said he was “appalled” that the League of Women Voters and Arizona Advocacy Network opposed the resolution.

Edman said that efforts to make district populations more even are a great idea, so long as the maps comply with the Voting Rights Act.

But there’s also many more reasons to oppose the resolution, he said.

Before any of Yarbrough’s proposals take effect, Arizona voters would have to approve Yarbrough’s proposed changes to the IRC — if the resolution advances out of the Senate and House, it’ll be put on the ballot in November.

Edman suspects it’s a question that isn’t worth asking — voters are likely to reject changes that would make redistricting more partisan again.

“The reality is that these things are hotly contested,” he said. “This is the most partisan issue that’s possible… so of course both sides are going to work as hard as they can to try and game the system, and that’s why it’s important that we have rules that are hard to game.”