All mail election debate gets new life, spurred by virus

In this March 10, 2020, file photo, a King County Election worker collects ballots from a drop box in Seattle for the primary election in Washington State, where elections are all mail. In Arizona, where voters can ask for a mail-in ballot, Democrats and some Republican election officials are calling for an all mail election, at least for this year as the coronavirus causes anxiety for face-to-face contact at the least and sickness and death at the worst. PHOTO BY JOHN FROSCHAUER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this March 10, 2020, file photo, a King County Election worker collects ballots from a drop box in Seattle for the primary election in Washington State, where elections are all mail. In Arizona, where voters can ask for a mail-in ballot, Democrats and some Republican election officials are calling for an all mail election, at least for this year as the coronavirus causes anxiety for face-to-face contact at the least and sickness and death at the worst. PHOTO BY JOHN FROSCHAUER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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.

Katie Hobbs
Katie Hobbs

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.

Michelle Ugenti-Rita
Michelle Ugenti-Rita

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.

bolickBolick 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?

Travis Grantham
Travis Grantham

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. 

Faced with hostility, election officials are resigning

In this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo, voters deliver their ballot to a polling station in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

After a decade serving as Yavapai County recorder, Leslie Hoffman announced her resignation this week and said the hostility directed toward her and her office during the past two years played into her decision to leave.

“I’ve been accused of corruption, giving out false numbers,” Hoffman said. “Look at Twitter today, and you will see some of the nasty things that have been said. ‘We’re watching you,’ ‘Do better,’ ‘Lawyer up.’”

Leslie Hoffman

In Arizona and across the country, threats and negativity toward election officials are taking their toll, speeding up retirements or prompting career or job changes.

Yavapai County Elections Director Lynn Constabile, who has been in her position 18 years, is also resigning. Constabile, an independent, said after the 2020 election, she never got the sense of accomplishment and relief that had kept her going after each election cycle.

“It feels like that election is still not over,” she said.

Constabile described a meeting last year where she and Hoffman came to answer questions about the election and were met with hecklers.

“When we get yelled at for how people voted and then accused of being corrupt, that was it for me,” Constabile said. “I was like, ‘No, I have to find something else to do. I’m not going to be able to do this for the rest of my life.’”

Hoffman is a Republican in a solidly Republican county where Donald Trump and Martha McSally won handily in 2020. Still, she said she gets emails through ProtonMail with messages like: “Leslie Hoffman is a fraud owned by the corrupt government.” Constabile said when they point out Trump and McSally won in their county, they’re met with, “Well, they should have won by more.”

While Hoffman said that while most comments they receive are not direct threats, sheriff’s deputies patrol her house periodically anyway. Constabile said she installed security cameras around her home.

Lynn Constabile

Despite all of that, Hoffman said she would have stayed, had she not received a job offer that she couldn’t pass up. She declined to share where she’ll be working next, but said the offer felt like a sign. The new position is not in elections.

“It is really hard, considering the climate, when you get a really good position offered to you,” Hoffman said.

Constabile also has a new job lined up: a remote position at a nonprofit based in California, which she said was “elections adjacent.”

Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the elections team at the Democracy Fund, testified to the U.S. Senate in May that the election administration field is “on the precipice of a mass exodus of election professionals.” Patrick previously worked as the federal compliance officer for Maricopa County.

She noted in her testimony that 74% of chief local election officials in the U.S. are older than 50, and 25% are older than 65. She said 35% of local officials are eligible to retire before the 2024 election.

“In this moment where everyone is being attacked and their families are being threatened, it has spurred many people who probably would have stayed on through at least one or two more presidential elections to leave the field even before this midterm,” Patrick said in an interview with Arizona Capitol Times. 

In addition to Hoffman, Yuma County Recorder Robyn Stallworth Pouquette, who has held that position since 2008, is taking a new job within the county, resigning effective July 18. At least six of Arizona’s 15 counties will have new elections directors this election cycle, including Pima, Pinal, Coconino, La Paz, Santa Cruz and Yavapai. Pouquette told ABC 15’s Garrett Archer that she was not resigning because of the “2,000 Mules” film or the county’s investigation into election fraud. The Yuma County Recorder’s Office is working with the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office on the investigation, according to the sheriff, who has also said the investigation was not prompted by the film.

Ken Matta, a longtime employee of the Secretary of State’s Office, left the office in May after nearly 20 years, working most recently as the state’s information security director. In a Twitter thread discussing his departure, Matta said that he started carrying a gun when he would go to Veterans Memorial Coliseum to observe the Arizona Senate’s election review last year and said he had the responsibility of triaging threatening messages sent to the office.

“I’ve seen the worst in people as they respond to misinformation spread by a political party – that is still going on today,” he wrote on Twitter.

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer said he thinks other recorders will retire soon.

“I would imagine there’s a whole number of recorders, I’m thinking at least four, who are probably going to retire this term,” he said.

Patrick, of the Democracy Fund, said there are two main concerns with longtime elections officials leaving: a loss of institutional knowledge and the question of who will fill the vacancies.

In some regards, Arizona is in a better position than many states when it comes to the first issue, because of the state’s Elections Procedures Manual, which provides a step-by-step how-to guide to administering elections. The manual is currently the subject of litigation, as Attorney General Mark Brnovich accused Secretary of State Katie Hobbs of not producing a “legally compliant” manual. While a Yavapai County Superior Court judge threw out the suit, Brnovich has since appealed.

“The procedures manual is so important because in most places in this country, when you become an election official, there’s no manual,” Patrick said. “There’s no guide. There’s nothing that tells you how … you do all of the things that you need to do in order to conduct an election.”

With the vacancies, Patrick said there’s a worry that someone running on a platform of election conspiracy theories could be elected or appointed instead of a nonpartisan election professional.

“We might get people put in these positions or elected into these positions that have a different motivation than the person that they’re replacing,” Patrick said. “That’s very problematic and deeply troubling.”

While many of these positions are elected through party primaries, Patrick said the history of election administration is that those individuals serve all voters.

Hoffman and Constabile said they had confidence in the Yavapai Board of Supervisors to appoint people who are just as neutral as they and their staff are. Hoffman shared the concern about institutional knowledge, noting the community of people with the skill set for the position is small.

“And, right now it’s hard to hire people because they see a job that has anything to do with elections, and they’re not as likely to apply,” she said.

Constabile’s resignation is effective July 1. Hoffman will step down July 22. In the meantime, Hoffman plans to prepare for the August 2 primary.  Hoffman said she’s proud of the work her office has done over the past 10 years and credited her staff, who she said were “wonderful, brilliant people.” Constabile echoed the sentiment.

“I feel really bad for the people we’re leaving behind that have to run the election,” she said. “I basically handpick my department, and they’re the best people in the world. I feel bad that I’m leaving them in the lurch. But I can’t – sometimes you just have to look out for No. 1.”


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.

Pandemic’s role unknown in rise of early voters

In this March 10, 2020, file photo, a King County Election worker collects ballots from a drop box in Seattle for the primary election in Washington State, where elections are all mail. In Arizona, where voters can ask for a mail-in ballot, Democrats and some Republican election officials are calling for an all mail election, at least for this year as the coronavirus causes anxiety for face-to-face contact at the least and sickness and death at the worst. PHOTO BY JOHN FROSCHAUER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this March 10, 2020, file photo, a King County Election worker collects ballots from a drop box in Seattle for the primary election in Washington State, where elections are all mail. In Arizona, where voters can ask for a mail-in ballot, Democrats and some Republican election officials are calling for an all mail election, at least for this year as the coronavirus causes anxiety for face-to-face contact at the least and sickness and death at the worst. PHOTO BY JOHN FROSCHAUER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Election officials say it’s nearly impossible to know if the pandemic has led to an increase in voters who have registered to the state’s Permanent Early Voting List compared to other election years because nobody keeps track of that data.

Some counties update information in real time, but do not save information from previous days, months or years – and that includes the Secretary of State’s Office. As of May 5, there were 2,772,998 early voters, according to the office. But with no information to compare that data to, there’s no statistical way to know how many people have joined since COVID-19 kicked off nor how many people on average sign up in any given election year.

However, in Maricopa County they have daily information readily available on the recorder’s website and seem to at least track the first week of every month. Updated numbers from May 7 show 1,748,152 early voters in the state’s largest county. That’s an increase of 2,668 from one month ago and an increase of 37,111 since February 7. Though some county officials estimate a higher increase can be from preparing for voting in the Democratic Presidential Preference Election on March 17.

David Stevens, the Republican county recorder in Cochise County, said his county saw an increase of about 10% of voters on the list, but those mostly came in February.

“It always increases as you get closer to an election,” Stevens said.

Yavapai County Recorder Leslie Hoffman, also a Republican, said because counties don’t ask voters why they are signing up for the list, there’s no actual way to know if they are signing up due to the pandemic or because an election is approaching.

Hoffman said one thing she has noticed, though, is the interest in joining the list has increased.

“The biggest thing we’ve had are people calling asking ‘How do I get on it?’” she said.

Yavapai County already has 77.6% of its registered voters on the permanent early voting list, which Hoffman says is the largest percentage in the state.

Maricopa County has 73.6% of its voters on the list, and the state has a rate of 70.6%.

A further breakdown from the Secretary of State’s Office shows the highest percentage of PEVL voters are Republicans at 37% compared to Democrats at 35%, Libertarians at 1% and other party or non-party affiliated voters at 27%.

For Pima County, Christopher Roads, the chief deputy recorder, said numbers have increased from 411,110 last December to 420,239 as of May 5.

After Arizona Capitol Times inquired to the Secretary of State’s Office, a spokeswoman said they would likely start keeping track of this data monthly to prepare for future questions about the information. But no reason was provided as to why the data was not being tracked already.

Hoffman also wanted to clarify misreporting regarding the Maricopa County Elections Department, asking the board of supervisors to approve a new plan for early voting in August.

She said it’s being reported that Maricopa County Elections Director Scott Jarrett asked for approval to extend early in-person voting by 14 days, but state law already requires early in-person voting to be open for 27 days before an election.

Hoffman said what Maricopa County was trying to do is open more voting centers for 14 days before the primary on August 4.

Megan Gilbertson, a spokeswoman for the elections department, confirmed what Hoffman said. Jarrett was asking the board of supervisors to open 75 to 100 voting centers to help prevent further coronavirus spread and increase social distancing, much higher than the previous election.

“In 2018, we provided anywhere between five to 35 voting locations prior to Election Day,” Gilbertson said.

Hoffman said in Yavapai County they will have 25 voting centers open for the primary, but that could change if they can’t find enough poll workers. A problem she said extends to the entire country.

Stevens said Cochise will have 17 voting centers open.

Voters who are interested in signing up for the list can still do so and can also request a one-time ballot by mail for the August primaries since it’s more than likely there won’t be a universal ballot by mail option due to Republican elected officials opposing the idea.

Non-party affiliated voters can vote in the primary election by choosing which party’s ballot they want to receive, which is different from presidential preference elections where voters must be registered to that party to vote.

Latest figures released by the Secretary of State’s Office show Democratic voters now outnumber independents by about 28,000, likely due to the Democratic-only election that was held in March.