PHOENIX — A confusing Senate confrontation has once again stalled passage of a bill that would purge from Arizona’s early voting list anyone who misses two elections.
This week Republican Sen. Kelly Townsend joined all the Senate Democrats in voting against HB 1485, which had already passed the House.
The lawmakers representing Rim Country and the White Mountains all supported the bill, which critics say would have knocked 125,000 people off the mail-in voting list in 2020.
Townsend had supported a more sweeping bill that would have effectively ended mail-in voting in Arizona, where three out of four voters rely on the system.
Townsend said she wanted to wait until the legislature completes a controversial audit of the 2 million votes cast in Maricopa County, in an attempt to determine whether the votes were correctly counted in President Joe Biden’s 10,000-vote win over then-President Donald Trump.
The Republicans in the legislature have won access to all of the Maricopa County ballots and plan a recount, although Democrats have sued to block the audit. If courts allow the audit to go forward, it could take months to complete.
Currently, three quarters of the state’s voters get an early ballot in the mail. They can fill out that ballot, sign the envelope and return it up to election day. Voting officials check to make sure the signature on the envelope matches the voter’s signature on file with their voter registration card. Voters can also take the ballot to the polls and turn it in as a provisional ballot.
District 6 Republicans Brenda Barton (R-Payson) and Walt Blackman (R-Snowflake) supported the measure as did Senator Wendy Rogers (R-Flagstaff).
If the measure had been in place before the 2020 election, about 125,000 voters would have been purged from the voter rolls, according to some estimates. Those voters could still have voted by going to the polls.
Republicans said the measure will reduce the chance of voter fraud that could stem from having ballots going out to old addresses after people have moved or by having other people get hold of the mailed ballots and casting a fraudulent vote. Then-President Donald Trump in the last election insisted that mail-in votes were more vulnerable to fraud. Nearly a dozen lawsuits filed in Arizona presented no evidence of widespread fraud and studies have failed to show an increase in voter fraud after states increase mail-in voting.
Democrats reacted furiously to the passage of the bill. At one point, Democrats walked out in mass to prevent the formation of a quorum necessary to pass legislation. After all 31 Republicans came to the floor, the vote proceeded. However, angry Republicans then cut off any debate or questions from returning Democrats.
House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding said, “to members of the public watching, you should be shocked, appalled and dismayed by what you are seeing in the Arizona State Capitol. As community leaders and elected officials, we said go out and vote…and you did. In fact, you came out in record numbers in 2020. Thank you! And because you did, your reward has been an unprecedented effort across this country and here in this state to make it harder for you to vote in the next election.”
Bolding maintained that the routine purge of the voter rolls would have the biggest impact on minority voters and independents, who are generally less likely to vote consistently. Independents can vote in the primary of either party except for in the presidential primary – but must request which ballot they want. As a result, they’re less likely to vote in primaries, which makes it more likely they would be dropped from the early voter rolls if they miss an election in the next cycle.
Studies show expansion of early voting systems in Colorado and elsewhere have had only a modest impact on voter turnout.
In Arizona historically, Republicans are more likely to take advantage of one of the nation’s most widespread early voter systems than Democrats, according to past studies. However, the 2020 election was an exception to that pattern with more Democrats casting mail-in votes than Republicans. The bill could also disproportionately affect younger voters, who are less likely to vote consistently and are more likely to register as Independents.
The House made several changes in the bill already adopted by the Senate, including giving voters 90 days instead of 30 days to respond to a notice they’re about to be removed from the list. The House also made a change that would require people to miss a general, primary or local election in two election cycles, rather than a primary and a general election in one year. The House bill also changes the name of the list from the “permanent early voting list” to the “active early voter list.”
Several other bills that would affect voting are still pending. One would require voters who use a mail-in ballot to not only sign the outside of the envelope, but also write their social security number or drivers license number on the ballot.
Studies have shown that mail-in ballots are much less likely to be counted due to problems verifying the signature than are ballots cast at the poll. Presumably, the new requirements would increase the rejection rate for mail-in ballots while also making it harder for someone to get hold of someone else’s ballot and cast a fraudulent vote.
The changes in the voting system in Arizona have drawn national attention, as have similar changes in other swing states like Georgia.
Celebrities like basketball superstar LeBron James and actor Kerry Washington have on their social media feeds shared videos of the House floor debate in which the Republican House Speaker cut off Democrats who said the measure would disproportionately affect voters of color.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham said impugning the motives of Republicans was offensive. “I feel personally, that motives were arraigned of members, including myself, with regards to colored people, Black people, whatever people this individual wants to single out and their ability to vote. I don’t think it’s correct and I think he should be sat down and he shouldn’t be allowed to speak.”