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. 

County has plans to count ballots if COVID strikes staff

In this Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, a person drops applications for mail-in-ballots into a mail box. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
In this Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, a person drops applications for mail-in-ballots into a mail box. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

The state’s largest county has a plan to keep tabulating ballots if the Elections Department gets hit with an outbreak of COVID-19 before the November 3 election. 

Megan Gillbertson, the Maricopa County Elections Department spokeswoman, said the county has a lot of safety protocols to protect voters at vote centers and the staff working out of the downtown Phoenix office. She said there are prevention measures in place, but also plenty of backup employees who can take over if someone tests positive for the virus. 

A county elections staffer in Kentucky’s Fayette County recently tested positive for COVID-19 and the entire staff has to quarantine for 14 days, which will delay ballots from being mailed to 45,000 voters, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported this week

Gillbertson said that won’t happen in Maricopa County, where there are 2,478,063 registered voters and more than 1.9 million on the Permanent Early Voter List, as of September 16. 

“We do daily temperature checks of all staff that are on site,” Gillbertson said, adding that the Health Department provides all county employees with free COVID tests when needed. And if an employee tested positive or is just showing symptoms they would have to quarantine, but not necessarily all employees who came into contact with the positive case.

Most of the election jobs can be done remotely as well.

“If someone believes that they have symptoms, and that they have been exposed to COVID-19, they have the ability to work from home,” Gillbertson said, adding that while anybody can choose to quarantine themselves “we only mandatorily require quarantine for those who are exhibiting symptoms.”

And for the jobs that cannot be done remotely, she said there’s enough replacement staff to fill in wherever needed.

“We don’t anticipate not having enough staff to support the election,” she said. 

That means if 20 or 30 employees all catch the virus and are required to quarantine for the recommended 14 days, the county has enough employees to still complete their job and have the election run smoothly. 

She listed examples of using county IT employees to fill in for elections IT employees who may get sick, and there are two county elections directors (one who works under the County Recorder and one with the County Board of Supervisors, who will share the election responsibility this cycle), among other positions. 

In addition to preventative measures for the office, Gilbertson said poll worker training has moved off site and most can also be done online, which helps lessen the number of employees in the offices, but there needs to be some staff at the Elections Department for “ballot security.” 

“We have to make sure that any election mechanism that we need to put in place that revolves around the ballots, all of that work has to be done at the Elections Department,” she said.

The county is expecting to receive more than 2 million ballots for the general election, which will be a record and county election officials are predicting between 85% and 90% of the ballots to come early or by mail. As of a county meeting on September 16 roughly 1.9 million ballots were requested, likely all from those on the Permanent Early Voters List. 

A big reason why Arizona’s largest county won’t see similar problems to Kentucky is likely due to its ability to conduct elections by mail better than most states. Arizona has allowed ballots by mail since the 1990s and roughly 75% of the state votes that way in a typical election. Kentucky had the option to vote by mail before COVID, but it was an option of which few voters took advantage. 

Other measures Gillbertson said the county has taken to prevent a complete department shut down is to open up space next door to the office for signature verification so there’s further implementation of remaining six feet apart as well as masks and daily temperature checks.

“We will not allow any employee on site if they do have a fever, and if they do have any symptoms, we encourage them to not come in and work their shift that day,” she said. 

And the possibility of an asymptomatic employee eventually testing positive, the employees who interact with a positive case would have to self-quarantine, at the determination of the Health Department, and other employees could come into the office after one of the department’s “weekly bio fog cleaning.” 

“The most important thing to know is that the Elections Department is working hard to implement the safety protocols necessary to ensure that our staff is as safe as possible, and that we can administer a successful election in Arizona,” Gillbertson said. 

Early ballots will be mailed to those on PEVL or voters who requested a one-time ballot by mail on October 7 and the deadline for voter registration is on October 5. 



Discontent with vote bringing slew of election bills

Arizona elections officials continue to count ballots inside the Maricopa County Recorder's Office, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Arizona elections officials continue to count ballots inside the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

As a significant portion of Arizona Republicans continue fighting to overturn the results of the last election, some GOP lawmakers have pivoted to crafting legislation to change how future elections are conducted.

Only a handful of election-related bills have been introduced so far, but dozens more are in the works. In many cases, they’re repeats of failed legislation from previous years, but some bills will reflect specific issues – from voting instructions to how to audit ballots – that arose after the 2020 election.

Voting rights advocates are prepared for a deluge of election-related bills, said Alex Gulotta, Arizona director of the national nonprofit organization All Voting is Local.

“I anticipate there will be a significant volume of voting-related things, some of which may be positive things that could get bipartisan support and some of which will be unfair and designed to suppress the vote,” Gulotta said. “We won’t stand for it, and neither will other people in the community.”

During a Senate hearing this week on election irregularities, Republican lawmakers sought to make the case that longtime priorities — which they describe as promoting election security and voting rights advocates decry as voter suppression — were needed to restore faith in the electoral system.

Outgoing Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said during the meeting that he hopes to see a return of previously unsuccessful legislation like a 2019 bill that would have removed voters from the Permanent Early Voting List, or PEVL, if they skipped two primary and general elections in a row.

Eddie Farnsworth
Eddie Farnsworth

“I would certainly encourage that some of the things that we’ve looked at in the past that were unsuccessful be revisited to try to clean up those rolls,” Farnsworth said. “I think that’s really important.”

Both Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the Scottsdale Republican who sponsored the 2019 bill, and Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, plan to introduce legislation to prune the PEVL.

Voters can now remain on the list until they request removal, cancel their voter registration or election materials are returned as undeliverable. This can result in ballots being sent to voters who have moved or died, but it’s already illegal for the new occupants of those voters’ former homes to use their ballots.

“We would be looking into making sure that all of those who have mailed ballots are actually people who live in those addresses and have a pulse,” said Kavanagh, who will chair the House’s Government and Elections Committee next year. “I think that’s where a little bit of partisan politics comes in, striking the balance between voter access and ballot security.”

Pinny Sheoran, new advocacy chair for the League of Women Voters of Arizona, said her group will closely monitor any attempts to remove voters from the PEVL or close polling locations.

“We are going to be watching very carefully for any attempts to make it harder for people to vote, including any efforts to curtail access to the permanent early voting list or the ability of people to drop their ballots,” she said. “We’ll also be watching very carefully and speak out on any attempts to create new barriers for people that are legitimate eligible voters who want to vote.”

Some of the election law changes favored by voter advocates, like automatic voter registration, are unlikely to pass or even be heard in the Republican-controlled Legislature. But GOP lawmakers and voting rights advocates see some areas for bipartisan work.

John Kavanagh
John Kavanagh

Kavanagh said he expects Democrats could sign on to legislation he’s crafting to ensure voters retain privacy in polling places and understand how tabulating machines work. Multiple post-election lawsuits featured stories from a handful of Maricopa County voters who didn’t understand the green and red buttons on the machines into which they fed their ballots.

Gulotta agreed. “I don’t know how many people were confused, but even if it’s only a small number of people, if a sign by the machine fixes something, I think things like that are possible,” he said. “We should talk about that.”

For his part, Gulotta said he’d like to see the Legislature analyze what resources it can provide to help counties finish the counting of votes faster. In both 2018 and 2020, it took well over a week to call some close races.

Other legislation will deal with the post-election audits that are meant to confirm faith in election results. Despite a court ruling that Maricopa County was correct to perform its statutory hand count audit based on 2% of its vote centers, instead of dividing its ballots by precinct, some lawmakers still believe the county erred because state statute only refers to precincts. The election procedures manual, a document created by the secretary of state and approved by the governor and attorney general and that carries the force of law, laid out guidelines for audits in counties that used vote centers instead of precinct-based polling places.

Kavanagh and several other lawmakers said they would back legislation that would codify those standards in state statute — or clarify that counties must divide ballots into their precincts of origin before auditing. Another measure, introduced by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, would increase the audit percentage from 2% to 5%, and allow the attorney general, secretary of state or Legislative Council to require a county to hand-count an even higher portion of ballots.

Mesnard’s bill also would allow anyone to ask for a full recount — provided the person pays for it. Arizona now only has recounts in extraordinarily close races: in a presidential race, the state’s recount laws only get triggered if the difference between candidates is less than 200 votes, or 1/10 of 1 percent of the votes cast, whichever number is smaller. In legislative races, the recount threshold shrinks to either 50 votes or 1/10 of 1 percent.

Mesnard said the bill could help build voter confidence in future elections.

“We need to bend over backwards, even if it costs a little bit of extra money and takes a little extra effort, to remove as much distrust as possible,” he said.

Disenfranchising voters is not ‘election reform’

Vote in a political campaign concept with a graphic element icon of voting as a jigsaw puzzle that is complete representing democratic elections organisation and campaigning for government positions of power between conservatives and liberals.

Arizonans have an election system that is safe, secure, and convenient. Through the hard work of election officials and leaders from both parties, our voting system serves as a national model.  Despite this success, we are now witnessing legislative efforts aimed at not only undoing this carefully crafted system, but actually attempting to suppress the votes of Arizonans. These efforts are misguided and must be defeated. 

And as private-sector business leaders who lead the Public Policy Committee of an organization of CEOs at the helm of hundreds of thousands of employees in Arizona, it is incumbent upon us to speak out against proposals that could interfere with any Arizonan’s right to vote.

Sharon Harper
Sharon Harper

In this legislative session, dozens of proposed bills would adversely affect the way that Arizonans vote and how those votes are counted. These proposed measures range from requiring a purge of voters from the Permanent Early Voting List, to introducing stringent new identification requirements for those voting by mail, to shortening the early vote period available for all voters. Some measures go even further and would do away with the Permanent Early Voting List in its entirety or would require all early ballots to be returned by a voter in person. Most egregiously, one measure would even permit legislators to overturn the will of the voters during a presidential election. 

These proposals are a concerted effort from those in Arizona -and across the nation- who wish to sow additional doubts about our elections in the minds of voters, and feed into the paranoia that has plagued our political discourse over the past several months. Disturbingly, each of these proposals have one thing in common – making it more difficult for Arizonans to vote.

Adam Goodman
Adam Goodman

Despite claims made by the proponents of these misguided measures, Arizonans already have confidence in the integrity of our elections and, by and large, they find it easy to vote. This confidence in our election process has been validated by the ever-increasing numbers of registered voters in Arizona utilizing vote-by-mail (and other innovations). The creation and implementation of our election improvements have historically received significant bipartisan support and represent our shared commitment to protecting the right to vote for all Arizonans. 

We live in a very politically divided time, which underscores why we must protect the institutions that have been successful and have instilled voter confidence. Win or lose an election in Arizona, we know that the system is accurate, fair and dependable. We can, and should, regularly strive to make improvements to the way that we conduct this most vital component of democracy. However, these efforts in play at the Legislature today will hinder, not enhance, the precious right to vote. 

These measures seek to disenfranchise voters. They are “solutions” in search of a problem. They are attempts at voter suppression cloaked as reform – plain and simple. 

The onslaught of voter suppression measures that have been introduced or entertained this session has been alarming. Attempts to disenfranchise Arizona voters is not “election reform” and cannot be tolerated. Further, pandering to those who willfully choose to perpetuate misleading or inaccurate information cannot continue. True leaders will play an important role in sharing the truth – our election system in Arizona works.

Sharon Harper is president & CEO of Plaza Companies, past board chair of Greater Phoenix Leadership and current Co-Chair of the Greater Phoenix Leadership Public Policy Committee. Adam Goodman is CEO of Goodman’s Interior Structures and co-chair of the Public Policy Committee. 


Elections law is simply voter suppression

Dear Editor:  

Without the Permanent Early Voters List, or PEVL, my sons wouldn’t have been able to vote. Two of my three sons have muscular dystrophy and without me in town, they could not get to the polls. PEVL has made it easy for them to exercise their right to vote, read the pamphlets provided since they are slow at reading. My older son has since died and NEVER, NOT ONCE, have I received a ballot for him. Our system is so good in Arizona that all agencies are notified of a death and a ballot is never issued again. Why is it changing now? Where do our Senators Kysten Sinema and Mark Kelly stand? Why have they not spoken out? 

The Republican Legislature in 1992, in an effort to get more votes for themselves, created the Permanent Early Voting List. This was convenient for citizens, especially me since I traveled for work and was rarely in Arizona on Election Day. Also, the PEVL gave me time to research candidates, look at what the consequences of their views would mean for me and my family. In 2014, my son was denied his vote since his address did not match his ID. DENIED HIS VOTE! although he had other ID available, namely his voter registration card and an Arizona ID card with a picture.  

SB1485 is attempting to solve a non-existent issue. What it is designed to do is suppress Arizona votes since our Legislature does not like the outcome of the presidential race as is the audit by an unqualified company wasting taxpayer money. My Republican neighbors were horrified at Trump’s actions, his leanings toward autocracy and authoritarianism. One even predicted he would not accept the outcome if he lost. Several have since changed parties due to being embarrassed to be recognized as possibly agreeing with the new Legislature.  

Seniors, especially those in nursing homes, have the right to vote as ALL citizens have the same right. Posting obstacles in their path is a form of a poll tax. HR 1 FOR THE PEOPLE ACT is the way to a better democracy. Many people only vote the president and Senate slots when further down the ballot are the elections controlling our daily lives. SB1485, which our governor signed as quickly as possible, to avoid voter contact, which he knows is objectionable, is voter suppression pure and simple. Other words are just distractions to this fact. Voters know this and will act. 
Catherine Hopkins 


Elections must be won on ideas, not unfair rules

“There have been irregularities in our elections, sometimes even fraud, but never to an extent that it affected the outcome. We should all be proud of that, and respect the decision of the majority even when we disagree with it. Especially when we disagree with it.”

Sen. John McCain

McCain would be ashamed of some things going on at the Arizona Legislature – actions being taken in the name of addressing alleged election fraud.

Mark Kimble
Mark Kimble

The traditional, good-faith practices of finding better candidates and developing better policies and ideas to appeal to more voters are being cast aside for a dispiriting, anti-democratic effort to pass laws that hinder – rather than promote – voter participation.

The Arizona Citizens’ Clean Elections Commission is a nonpartisan organization created by voters when they passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act in 1998.

In passing the act, the voters identified two critical concepts. First, the intent of the act was to “encourage citizen participation in the political process.” A second intent is “to improve the integrity of Arizona state government and promote public confidence in the Arizona political process.” 

The act also creates the Citizens Clean Elections Commission consisting of five commissioners. Currently there are two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent. The commission is nonpartisan and it works to implement the intent of the act.

As commissioners, when we observe a concerted and focused effort to make it more difficult for Arizonans to vote and participate in the political process, that is something we are obligated to oppose.

We see that happening now.

Damien Meyer
Damien Meyer

Many members of our Legislature want to keep perceived unfriendly voters out of the election process.

There are numerous bills in this session of the Arizona Legislature that make it more difficult for Arizonans to vote and they lack the integrity of fair and robust elections.

We oppose these bills. 

These bills address early voting procedures and voter registration, the favored voting procedure in Arizona, as about 80% of Arizona voters prefer to vote by mail. 

However, those who cast early ballots are a major source of concern for some of our Arizona legislators. 

Most of those early voters receive an early ballot automatically because they signed up for the Permanent Early Voter List, or PEVL. But proposed legislation is aimed at removing names from PEVL and making it more difficult to vote early. These bills include:

HB 2560: Would remove Arizonans from the PEVL if they didn’t use their early ballot in one general election. If you change your mind and vote at the polls, or misplace your early ballot and vote at the polls, then you are off the PEVL until you sign up again.

SB 1485: Would remove Arizonans from the PEVL if they don’t vote an early ballot in two consecutive primary and general elections. This bill targets independents who frequently skip voting in a primary because they incorrectly assume the primary is open only to voters registered with a political party.

SB 1003: Would require that voters who forget to sign their early ballot would have only until 7 p.m. on Election Day to fix the error. People who vote ballots that are not early have five more days to correct such errors.

SB 1593: Early ballots would go out five days later than now. And they would have to be returned earlier – postmarked the Thursday before the election, compared with the current rule that they have to be received by 7 p.m. Election Day. The effect is to give people less time to cast an early ballot.

SB 1713: Instead of just signing their early ballot to prove their identity, voters would have to provide an affidavit with their date of birth and driver’s license number. If they don’t have that, they have to provide their voter registration number or a copy of something showing their address.

Legislators also want to make it more difficult to register to vote:

SB 1358: Would prohibit county recorders from registering voters anyplace that is not government property. This negatively impacts the ability to reach out to register voters where they live, such as isolated Native American reservations or rural communities. 

There are many more bills that seek to make it more difficult to register and vote for no legitimate reason. There is simply no basis for a democratic form of government to actively attempt to limit a citizen’s right to vote. This is unconscionable.

We want to make one thing crystal clear – our opposition is not political. We are charged with standing up for the rights of Arizona voters. That is our only concern.

We want voting in Arizona to continue to be safe, secure and convenient – free of contrived barriers designed to make voting more difficult. Elections must be won or lost based on candidates and their ideas – not on who successfully navigates a maze of unfair and unnecessary rules. 

Please take the time to give these bills some thought, develop your own opinions and contact your legislator with your position. In other words, we encourage you to participate in the political process and to help improve the integrity of our elections. 

Mark Kimble of Tucson is a retired journalist and registered independent. Damien Meyer of Phoenix is an attorney and registered Democrat. Both are appointed members of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

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.

House panel OKs purge of early voter list


A bill to remove voters from the Permanent Early Voting List if they miss four elections in a row is headed to the full House.

After more than an hour of debate Wednesday, the House Government and Elections Committee voted 7-6 along party lines to advance SB1485. Sponsored by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, the bill would take people off the list if they skip four elections in a row, primary or general, and then don’t respond to a notice asking if they would like to stay on the Permanent Early Voting List.

The bill’s opponents said it would make things more difficult for senior citizens and people serving in the military or traveling overseas on missions and that it would be especially bad for independents, who would only have to miss two general elections in a row to be removed from the list.

“This bill is a step back from participation and a step back from freedom,” said Joel Edman, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network and Foundation.

The bill’s supporters characterized it as a housekeeping measure that would remove people from the list who aren’t voting anyway and save the expense of mailing them ballots.

“It just cleans up the Permanent Early Voting List and enables us to have some control over a potential fraudulent situation,” said Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction.

The bill could remove about 143,000 from the list, Edman said. Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said it will result in removing a disproportionate number of Latinos and Native Americans from the list. If the bill had been passed in 2019, she said, it could have resulted in removing from the list 50,000 Latinos who voted in 2020, more than enough to have changed the outcome given President Joe Biden’s 12,000-vote victory in the state.

“This is not housekeeping,” she said. “This is the tip of a pyramid of a massive voter suppression campaign to make it harder for you to vote. … We’re seeing it in state legislatures across the country. And especially in a state like Arizona, it makes all the difference.”

Committee Chairman Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the bill would prevent some election fraud, although he said he didn’t know how much fraud it would prevent or even how much fraud there is. He referred to the “pyramid of crime” he teaches about in his criminal justice class at Scottsdale Community College, with the bottom being the total number of crimes committed and the top being crimes that are recorded in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.

“Crimes that we actually know are the tiny tip of a massive iceberg of criminal activity in this country, and I suspect the same is true of election fraud,” he said. “You just don’t get it all. So I don’t know what the number is, but it’s there.”

He also told the committee not to characterize the bill as part of an effort to suppress the vote.

“That impugns the sponsor and the integrity of the people that support the bill,” he said.

Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, said the bill would send a message to lower-propensity voters that the state doesn’t want to hear their voices.

“Restricting this program is undemocratic,” she said. “We don’t know what people’s circumstances are, why they didn’t vote. … It should not be on our Legislature to punish these voters for not voting.”



Independent voters will be harmed by election reform proposal

Voter Proudly Displays Evidence that He Voted on Election Day in the United States.
Voter Proudly Displays Evidence that He Voted on Election Day in the United States.

Independent voters in Arizona could be facing a substantial and unjustified change in the way they vote. Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita’s bill to purge the permanent early voting list, or PEVL, will have a negative impact on voters who choose to remain unaffiliated with any political party. The proposal has already been defeated once in the Senate (SB 1069) but has been revived in a strike-all amendment to SB1485, which is now headed to the Senate floor.

Jon Sherman

The bill calls for removing registered Arizona voters from the PEVL—which a majority of Arizona voters use—if they do not vote in both the partisan primary election and the general election in two successive elections for which there was a federal, statewide, or legislative race on the ballot. On its face, this proposal is bad policy: why should a registered voter be kicked off this early voter list simply for missing a single special election to fill a vacant state representative’s seat? Such a law would force voters to keep tabs on and vote in every single race above the municipal level in order to continue receiving mail-in ballots as they have for years. That makes no sense, and Arizona would be alone among the fifty states in enacting such a law.

But if this bill is going to move forward, there is a more basic, constitutional problem with it: specifically, it violates independent voters’ First Amendment rights. That may sound like an exaggeration, but bear with me. The First Amendment gives us the right to express ourselves politically and to associate—or not associate—with a group or political party. Independent voters choose not to affiliate themselves with any political party. Under Arizona’s open primary system, they may elect to vote in a party’s primary, but they have never been required to do so.

Forcing an independent voter to vote in a partisan primary election is forcing them to affiliate with one of the two parties, to participate in the nomination of that party’s candidate for U.S. Senator or Governor. These voters will not automatically receive a PEVL ballot in the mail prompting them to vote in the partisan primary elections, but they are still required to request a ballot and vote in those contests if they want to stay on PEVL. This purge bill will force registered voters who are unaffiliated with any political party to choose between maintaining their independent status and staying on the PEVL.

That is unconstitutional. Some independent voters may well want to affiliate with a political party to vote in a primary election, but it would clearly violate the First Amendment to compel them to do so. Numerous U.S. Supreme Court cases have forbidden the government from compelling our speech or association. In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down California’s requirement that parties allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their primaries. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia noted that “a corollary of the right to associate is the right not to associate.” As recently as 2018, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed in an opinion written by Justice Alito that “[f]reedom of association . . . plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate.” Forcing an independent voter to associate and ultimately register with a political party violates that person’s right to free political expression.

Independent voters are no small segment of the electorate. In Arizona, 1,355,665 registered voters have declared their independence from the Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian parties. That is nearly one third of all registered voters in the state. Many independent voters want to vote in general elections only, as is their constitutional right. To put it more directly, should this bill pass without dropping the requirement to vote in partisan primary elections, independent Arizona voters will be well within their rights to sue to block that blatantly unconstitutional feature.

Jon Sherman is senior counsel for the Fair Elections Center in Washington D.C.

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.