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.