We are inching dangerously close to the point where elections in Arizona can be suspended for an indefinite period of time for the flimsiest of reasons.
Claiming to be acting at the request of the U.S. Department of Defense, Secretary of State Jan Brewer is seeking unprecedented authority from the state Legislature to postpone elections for a wide range of nebulous reasons.
In a grab for power that has been ignored by mainstream reporters covering the state Capitol but sharply criticized by voting-rights groups, Brewer wants authority to postpone state and federal elections in the event of a civil disorder, a natural disaster, a state of emergency or any other catastrophic event.
Secretary of State Jan Brewer
None of these events is specifically defined in a bill sponsored by Republican Representative Doug Quelland, at Brewer's request. A civil disorder, critics of the bill say, could range from massive riots that set a city ablaze to a handful of protesters staging a sit-in on the Capitol mall.
By a 6-2 vote, the House Judiciary Committee on January 19 approved Quelland's bill that includes no specific deadline to reschedule a postponed election. Instead, House Bill 2148 only requires the Secretary of State to reschedule the postponed election "as soon as practical."
Democratic state Representative Ted Downing of Tucson is sharply critical of the bill.
"The people of Arizona, I think, would react very strongly if they thought that in [the Legislature] we were in the process of . . . granting the Secretary of State or any elected official the right to postpone an election," Downing said during the committee hearing.
Brewer, who did not return my telephone call requesting an interview, appeared confused and flustered during her testimony before the committee. Downing asked her to define what constitutes a civil disorder that would cause her to suspend an election, and she gave this incoherent response:
"A civil disorder, I guess, you could ask the attorney Louis, um. Of course, it's not only addressing civil disorder, it's a catastrophe," she said. "In fact, if something were to happen to the nuclear plant, et cetera, et cetera. We are not much into hurricanes here. But who knows? We have other kinds of things that do take place."
Like what kind of "things," Madam Secretary?
If you can't provide a better explanation than that for what you consider to be a civil disorder that would allow you to postpone our right to vote, then it's time for you to rethink your career choice.
The fact that you would even propose such an outrageous usurpation of our date-certain fundamental right to vote is bad enough. But to offer such a dimwitted explanation of when you would exercise such awesome power is testament of your ineptitude.
Fact is, this Republican war-horse has been feeding at the public trough for way too long. After spending 14 years in the Legislature and another six as a member of the do-nothing Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Brewer was elected Secretary of State in 2002.
She's accumulated enough years in public office to qualify for the state's cushy retirement plan for elected officials. It's time to send her on her way in the upcoming election, where she'll face former Phoenix mayor Skip Rimsza in the Republican primary. Skippy's no genetic engineer, but at least he can answer a question in a complete sentence.
If she gets past Rimsza, perhaps Democrat Bruce Wheeler can upset Brewer and drive a stake through her political career.
Brewer's claim to fame as Secretary of State is ignoring the District 20 recount fiasco, where 489 votes suddenly appeared between the September 2004 Republican primary for a House seat and a recount two weeks later. Rather than investigate what happened, she's passively accepted Maricopa County's clumsy whitewash.
Not only has Brewer failed to get to the bottom of the huge voting scandal that may have affected other races in the September 2004 primary election in Maricopa County, she is now trying to shove the dreaded Diebold touch-screen voting machines down our throats.
Brewer wants to put these machines, which New Mexico recently moved to ban, in more than 2,000 precincts across Arizona. The "direct recording electronics" voting machines do not create a paper trail so that their tabulations can be audited. In other words, there is no way to compare the votes that appear on the machines with hand-marked paper ballots.
Even worse, hackers have made easy pickings of the memory cards in these machines, casting serious doubt about their ability to accurately and fairly tabulate votes.
Now, the highly partisan Brewer, who served as co-chair for President Bush's 2004 election campaign in Arizona, cavalierly expects us to confer upon her office the immense power to suspend elections based on some vague "civil disorder" rationale?
Brewer's vapid explanation of what constitutes a civil disorder leads me to believe that such an event could be anything that Brewer doesn't like. She's already shown how thin-skinned she is, calling voting-rights groups "anarchists" and "conspiracy theorists," when they staged a noisy protest during her recent speech touting her accomplishments and kicking off her reelection campaign.
Is such an act of civil disobedience enough to suspend an election in the Brave New World being created by fear-mongers like Brewer, Doug Quelland, et al.?
Representative Downing raises that very real possibility.
"My fear is that civil disorder could have such a broad definition that [Republican majority members of] the Legislature would like to postpone an election if it looked like they were going to lose," Downing said during the Judiciary Committee hearing.
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee said the threat of impeachment would keep the Secretary of State from abusing this power. But by the time the Legislature took its sweet time getting around to an impeachment proceeding, the citizens of this state would be storming the Capitol with pitchforks. Or at least I hope they would, if Brewer suspended voting for anything less than an act of war or the collapse of Roosevelt Dam.
Brewer said critics of the bill, such as Downing, are sticking their heads in the sand. She said they are wrong if they think the state couldn't one day face a serious emergency such as the 9/11 terrorist attack or a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina.
Yes, such cataclysmic events are possible. But there are ways to address dire circumstances with very narrow language that spells out exactly what should be done in the event terrorists commandeer a jet and plow it into the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station just before or on election day.
This can be done without conveying the power to suspend our right to vote for an indefinite time to a state elected official who ranks below the governor.
Furthermore, Brewer's claim that "the Pentagon" wants the Arizona Secretary of State to have this power appears to be blown way out of context.
I read the January 3 letter from the Department of Defense's Federal Voting Assistance Program, and nowhere does it say that the Secretary of State should have the power to postpone elections.
Instead, the DOD letter asks that in the event of an emergency, the state should develop alternative methods to deliver absentee ballots to military personnel and others stationed overseas. Rather than sending the ballots by traditional mail, which requires up to 45 days, DOD suggests that Arizona implement rules to send the ballots by e-mail.
Needless to say, this is a far cry from Brewer's claim.
House Bill 2148 goes way too far. It must not become law or there will come a day when a renegade or incompetent Secretary of State will be tempted to thwart our right to vote for reasons far less than Armageddon.
And only something closely rivaling that kind of Judgment Day should be of sufficient magnitude to justify the postponement of elections.
I agree with Downing's bottom-line assessment of this piece of legislation:
"We can't put democracy's neck in a noose and allow anyone to hold this power."
The quest for gaining access to the District 20 ballots from the 2004 Republican primary received a powerful boost when 21 of 30 senators -- including Senate President Ken Bennett -- agreed to back Republican Senator Jack Harper's effort to pry loose the ballots from the Maricopa County Elections Department.
Also, the Senate Government Accountability and Reform Committee, which Harper chairs, voted unanimously on January 25 to support Harper's plan to issue a legislative subpoena to Maricopa County demanding release of the ballots.
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This sets up a likely showdown between the Senate and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who has said he will oppose any effort to release the ballots. Thomas, also a Republican, has attacked and ridiculed Harper for investigating the District 20 mess, going so far as demanding in a letter to Bennett that Harper be removed as head of the committee he chairs.
But Thomas' attempt to derail Harper's probe backfired. Instead of only having to deal with Harper, Thomas now faces a decisive two-thirds majority of the Senate seeking access to the ballots.
Harper wants to turn the 17,000 ballots over to an independent expert for examination to determine why 489 votes appeared during a recount of the District 20 Republican primary for a state House seat.
Experts believe there are two possibilities for why the votes materialized out of thin air: Either Maricopa County's voting machines malfunctioned during the primary and failed to detect the votes that were later found by the same type of optical scanners during the recount, or someone added the votes by tampering with the ballots.