Republicans call it a painless tweak that will speed up Arizona's turbulent vote-counting process.
For Democrats, it's a restrictive plan that will suppress the right to vote for thousands of citizens who receive a ballot in the mail.
Lawmakers clashed in the Arizona State Senate on Wednesday over the measure, SB 1046, which would prohibit voters from dropping off mail-in ballots at polling places.
The bill, sponsored by Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale, passed the Senate in a voice vote during the committee of the whole.
However, the bill awaits a final vote in the chamber, and two Republican senators have said they oppose it, meaning the bill might already be in trouble.
The proposal would prohibit voters who receive an early ballot in the mail, such as those on the Permanent Early Voting List from dropping their ballot off at a polling place on or before Election Day. Voters on the list automatically receive a ballot in the mail several weeks in advance of each election.
Democrats said the bill restricts a popular way to cast a ballot used by thousands of voters who receive a ballot in the mail and go to the polls anyway.
As the rationale for the measure, Republicans like Ugenti-Rita have pointed to the slow vote count during the 2018 midterm election, when several close Arizona races were not decided until days after the election.
“Arizona has the very unbecoming distinction of slow, tedious results,” Ugenti-Rita said on the floor Wednesday. Hopefully, she said, by ending this hybrid system, counties will not have to count a large number of mail-in ballots received on the day of the election.
Dropping off mail-in ballots at the polls is widespread in Arizona: 228,000 voters took advantage of the practice during the November election. Ironically, this figure includes over 12,000 voters in Ugenti-Rita’s own District 23, the Arizona Mirror reported – the fifth-highest number among districts across the state. In Maricopa County, 168,000 voters chose to drop off their early ballot at a polling place.
Democrats on the Senate floor spoke out against Ugenti-Rita’s measure in strong terms, calling the measure an exercise in voter suppression that could disenfranchise tens of thousands of people.
“I just want to highlight how many voters we’re talking about here,” said Democrat Sean Bowie. He tossed out a couple of statistics for his colleagues. Bowie said he had no interest in disenfranchising voters who like having the flexibility to either mail or drop off their ballot.
Martín Quezada, a Democrat who represents Phoenix's District 29, said Ugenti-Rita’s proposal risks confusing voters who have grown accustomed to hanging onto their mail-in ballot and doing research on candidates in the lead-up to the election.
In response, Ugenti-Rita said she was not sure what Quezada is afraid of. “People can adapt and adjust. The public is very smart,” she said.
Democratic lawmakers who represent rural parts of the state, including Lisa Otondo of Yuma and Jamescita Peshlakai of Cameron, said the bill would close off a key avenue for their constituents to cast a ballot.
“This is voter suppression,” Otondo said. “It’s disenfranchisement of many in the rural areas and those who do not have postal service coming to their homes.”
Republicans quickly pushed back on the Democrats’ claims, accusing them of exaggerating the consequences of the bill.
Senator J.D. Mesnard lobbed a question to Ugenti-Rita to give her an opportunity to defend the measure from the Democratic argument of voter suppression.
Ugenti-Rita said, “No one’s not going to be able to vote. This stops no one, or interferes with, no one’s ability to vote. It just adjusts the way one would vote."
Picking up the microphone again, Mesnard rounded on the Democrats for their rhetoric surrounding the bill. Terms like disenfranchisement and voter suppression ought to scare legislators, Mesnard said, and he went as far as to read the definition of the words "disenfranchise" and "suppress."
“There is literally nothing in here that’s depriving anybody of the right to vote,” Mesnard said. “We have confused the right to vote with convenience," he added later. "They are not the same thing.”
Shortly thereafter, Mesnard and Democrat Juan Mendez of Tempe clashed on the floor after Mendez implied that bills that restrict the right to vote, like Ugenti-Rita's, might be racist, and referred to the era of Jim Crow laws.
Mesnard called for a point of order, arguing that Mendez’s comment was a violation of the rules for impugning another member, but he could not cite a specific rule violation.
Senator Eddie Farnsworth, acting as the Senate president, warned Mendez to stay away from “any kind of impugning.” Mendez made one more attempt to clarify his remark, but Farnsworth cut him off again.
“I am strongly cautioning you now. Let’s move on away from the racism, okay?” Farnsworth said.
Mendez seemed frustrated. “I’m done,” he said, and yielded the floor.
Some county officials are not on board with Ugenti-Rita’s idea. Democratic Recorder Adrian Fontes of Maricopa County and Republican Recorder Leslie Hoffman of Yavapai County both have expressed their opposition to the measure.
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In the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago, the executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties said early ballots could continue to bog down the vote-counting process if ballots are mailed just before the election, as the Arizona Capitol Times reported.
During the midterm elections, the winners of Arizona’s open Senate seat and the race for superintendent of public instruction were not called until nearly a week after Election Day. The secretary of state's race was not called until 10 days later. Democrats took the lead in all three of these races after initial results showed them behind, prompting baseless claims of voter fraud from GOP officials and even President Trump.
And even though Ugenti-Rita's bill passed in a preliminary voice vote on Wednesday, the outlook for her proposal is dim. Two Republican senators, Heather Carter and Kate Brophy McGee, came out against the bill on Wednesday, leaving the measure one vote short in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 17-13 majority.
So far this session, Ugenti-Rita has sponsored several bills to reform Arizona's voting law. One of her other measures, SB 1188, would purge voters from the Permanent Early Voting List if they fail to vote in the primary and the general election for two consecutive elections. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear the bill on Thursday.