Republican state legislators are pushing bills that would make it harder to vote by mail in Arizona after the system helped put Democrats Mark Kelly in the U.S. Senate and Joe Biden in the White House.
Arizona Democrats say the proposed laws would amount to voter suppression.
In the run-up to the November election, Arizonans voted early in record numbers. More ballots were returned by mail or delivered directly to election officials in comparison to past years, and there was a surge in people voting in-person at designated voting centers. The result was that Democrats out-performed Republicans during early-voting, giving Kelly and Biden a formidable edge in the early ballot returns. Even as the races tightened as more ballots were counted, both Democrats maintained their leads.
Now, Republican state lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature are pushing several bills that would undermine the vote-by-mail system that helped drive November's high Democratic turnout. One bill even seeks to eliminate entirely the permanent early voting list, which is a list of voters who are automatically sent mail-in ballots. The measures are at odds with the fact that the majority of Arizonans voted early in past election cycles and that the system has existed in the state for over a decade.
In the Arizona House of Representatives, Republican state Representatives Kevin Payne of Peoria and Walt Blackman of Snowflake have introduced a bill, HB 2370, that would repeal the permanent early voting list. Another bill proposed by Payne, HB 2369, would require that voter signatures on the envelopes holding early ballots be notarized. That means the voter would need to sign the ballot in front of a notary.
Neither Blackman or Payne responded to Phoenix New Times' request for comment on the legislation. Payne told the Arizona Republic hours after introducing the bill on Tuesday that he wants to change the entire text of the bill with an amendment, and that the bill written as is "can't pass." He indicated that he would still stand behind the bill, however.
Another bill, SB 1069, introduced in the state Senate by Republican Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale, would purge voters from the permanent early voting list who fail to vote in both primary and general elections in two consecutive election cycles when there are statewide, federal, or legislative races on the ballot. She pushed similar legislation in the 2019 legislative session, but it ultimately died in the House.
Ugenti-Rita argued that the bill isn't intended to disenfranchise voters, but instead removes people from the list who are inactive voters anyway.
"It doesn’t penalize anyone. They’re not doing it, they’re not engaging in voting by mail," she said. "This isn’t doing anything other than making sure that ballots are being sent to those who vote by mail, and if you’re not voting by mail this is going to mean nothing to you."
Democratic lawmakers and progressive groups were quick to denounce the bills as a blatant attempt at voter suppression.
“The Arizona Republican Party is anti-democracy, pure and simple. They spread lies about the electoral process, tried to overturn the result of the 2020 election, and helped incite an armed insurrection at the US Capitol," Emily Kirkland, executive director of Progress Arizona, a liberal group, said in a statement. "Now Republican lawmakers are attacking the vote by mail list in a blatant attempt to prevent eligible voters from making their voices heard. As Arizonans, we need to come together, stop these attacks and re-affirm and uplift Democratic ideals."
Democratic state Representative Athena Salman of Tempe was also critical of the proposals by GOP lawmakers.
"It’s incredibly disturbing to see that they’re willing to prevent eligible voters from voting based on the gamble that the voters who are impacted are going to be more Democratic than Republican," she said. "Up until this last election, the Republicans never had a problem with the [permanent early voting list] when Republicans were using it. It’s only when we see more usage by a Democratic voting base that we see bills in both chambers."
She added that Ugenti-Rita's bill wrongfully gives the government the authority to remove people from the permanent early voting list.
"That’s not a politician’s choice to make," Salman said. "There’s several reasons why a voter could just decide not to vote, but again that’s not a politician’s role to then kick them off the early vote list and make that decision for them."
Joel Edman, executive director of Arizona Advocacy Network, a voting rights-oriented group, called the bills a "theme" of trying to restrict early voting in Arizona.
"Voting by mail obviously is really popular in Arizona and apparently there are some folks in the Republican caucuses who think they can't win in a fair fight anymore and want to make it harder to vote by mail and take away those methods that most Arizonans have gotten really used to," he said.
Edman added that Payne's bill requiring people who vote early to get their ballot envelope signatures notarized is an obstacle to easy voting access.
"Notaries are not free and easy to find," he said. "Most people do not have access to that readily, so you’re just going to create more disparities in who is able to vote."
Both of the bills in the House regarding the permanent early voting list have not yet been scheduled for hearings in committees. But Ugenti-Rita's bill that would purge some voters from the list will be heard in the Senate Committee on Government at 2 p.m. on Thursday, January 21.
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