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How Katie Hobbs Plans to Fix the Arizona Secretary of State's Office

Katie Hobbs, Arizona's Secretary of State-elect, at a press conference on November 19, 2018.EXPAND
Katie Hobbs, Arizona's Secretary of State-elect, at a press conference on November 19, 2018.
Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times
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In her first public remarks as Arizona’s Secretary of State-elect, Democrat Katie Hobbs pledged on Monday to make elections in Arizona “secure, fair, and efficient,” and to ensure all eligible voters can cast ballots.

Hobbs, the outgoing state Senate minority leader, declared victory on Friday evening, 10 days after Election Day, in one of the tightest races in Arizona. Now, she'll inherit a host of political, logistical, managerial, and technological challenges as she steps into the role of elections chief.

She offered few specifics on Monday about her transition plan, her expected staffing, or her legislative agenda, which she said was “not fleshed out yet.”

Instead, she laid out a broad vision of participation and inclusivity, and promised to restore transparency and accountability to government. Hobbs declined to set forth specific strategies, timelines, or deadlines for achieving some of those goals, although she did try to explain how her ideas would alleviate the ills that have plagued elections in Arizona, such as long lines at polling centers, disputes over emergency voting centers, and the nearly two weeks over which this election's ballot-processing has stretched.

“I will work to ensure that every eligible voter, whether you are a Republican, Democrat, independent, libertarian or Green, that you can cast your ballot with confidence that your vote counts and your voice matters, and do so in a way that is meaningful and convenient to you,” Hobbs said. “We must do better at increasing citizen participation at every level of government.”

Hobbs delivered her remarks to a handful of reporters and small spread of TV cameras at a conference room in the State Capitol, exchanging occasional quips with reporters and departing at times from prepared remarks that she delivered in a practiced tone.

She said she would be happy to work on legislation to increase transparency in elections, especially in campaign finance, and pledged to do “anything I can do from my end, just on beefing up the reporting requirements without legislation.”

Asked about her plans to work with the Republican-dominated legislature and Republican Governor Doug Ducey to require disclosures of dark money spending, in which donors attempting to influence voters go undisclosed, she responded, “I think we can make the case that there’s a mandate to work across the aisle.”

When another reporter asked whether she would clean up Arizona’s two campaign finance websites — one of which outgoing Secretary of State Michele Reagan touted as a major achievement but that has largely proved difficult to navigate — she said she would do so.

“We have two of them!” the reporter pointed out, describing both sites, in a word, as dysfunctional.

“Yes, we do,” Hobbs returned. “So yes, let’s fix that.”

Hobbs also pledged to rebuild broken relationships with all 15 of Arizona’s county recorders and to “fully support them” in managing elections in their respective areas. She said she would attend a meeting of these recorders in early December.

She tried to address the thorny debate over early and emergency voting, suggesting that instead of having emergency voting centers open on weekends, Arizona should simply keep early voting open through the weekend prior to elections.

In-person early voting in Arizona ends at 5 p.m. the Friday before Tuesday elections, per state law, while emergency voting centers, open the weekend and Monday before Election Day, are supposed to be used by those who are not able to vote on Election Day itself. In this last election, Republicans criticized Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes for opening five emergency voting centers prior to Election Day, implying that those centers were not being used by voters in true emergencies.

Part of the problem was, “Who gets to decide what’s an emergency?” Hobbs suggested Monday. She said that rules about emergency voting centers needed to be implemented in a consistent way, and that she wanted to work on legislation to do so, but added, “I would suggest keeping voting open throughout the weekend before an election.”

In an interview with Phoenix New Times the day before elections, Hobbs delved deeper into the details of what she hoped to accomplish — and how — if she were elected secretary of state. Topping the list was removing impediments to voting, whether they were logistical, educational, or technological.

“I have talked to a lot of folks my age, or a little bit older, that have millennial kids who don’t understand how to vote, which is just crazy,” she said. “It doesn’t do any good to just be like, ‘It’s easy, just go do it.’ We have to demystify the process, and that’s about voter education and outreach, for everyone.”

People needed to know where they could go to find and obtain accurate information, she said, adding, "We’ve had permanent early voting for more than a decade, and people are still confused by it."

Hobbs also explained in depth why she supported expanded early voting, and what that expansion would entail.

“Most of us are inundated by election information all the time,” she told New Times, “but there are people who are not tuned in because they are just living their life. They might’ve had canvassers come to their door this weekend, realized the election is Tuesday, and if they could’ve had an opportunity to vote this weekend, that could’ve made all the difference in them getting out to vote.”

But those people might not know that they have the right to take time off from work to vote, or they might not be able to afford to take unpaid time off work to vote, she said. “If we had early voting over the weekend, that would make a huge difference in turnout.”

People living in remote areas, including tribal communities, faced particular challenges in casting their ballots, especially if they live hundreds of miles from a postal center, Hobbs added. She said she wanted to make voting easier for them by adding polling centers, something she said she could do by supporting county recorders, and by repealing what’s been dubbed the "ballot-harvesting" law.

“I usually call it ‘ballot collection,' because ‘harvesting’ sounds really nefarious, like organ harvesting,” Hobbs said. “Say I’m going to the mail today. I could go to all my neighbors and pick up their ballots [and mail them], only I can’t, because it’s a felony,” Hobbs explained. “Not a big deal here [in Phoenix], because there’s a lot more options, but there’s just not, in those really remote communities.”

Registering voters should be simpler too, according to Hobbs. For instance, the National Voter Registration Act, a.k.a. the Motor Voter Act, allows people to register to vote when they apply for or renew their driver’s license. But even Hobbs’ own experience with that law was unnecessarily cumbersome, after recently going to the Motor Vehicle Division to update her license.

“I went in, I updated my driver’s license, and then it asked if I wanted to update my voter registration,” she recalled. “They could easily eliminate that whole extra step and just tell you, ‘Your voter registration is going to be automatically updated.’” She added, “There’s a lot of opportunity to enhance the back end of how those systems work together.”

With elections just two weeks ago, much attention has focused on the role of the secretary of state in overseeing them. But the office is responsible for other matters and services, too, like filing trademark registrations and limited partnerships. Candidates for office also must file their financial reports with the secretary of state’s office.

“In my discussions with people, not very many of [these areas] are working very well,” Hobbs told New Times. “These are systemic problems, and we need to do a top-to-bottom review and put together a plan of how we can fix them.”

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