Arizona Legislators Launch Dueling Proposals on Voting Rights and Elections

Joseph Flaherty
Arizona Representative Reginald Bolding describes a proposed House resolution creating a voters' bill of rights at a January 17 news conference.
A battle is underway for the future of voting rights in Arizona, featuring liberal lawmakers who want to expand voting opportunities fighting with conservatives who seek to add new restrictions.

Democratic legislators unveiled a House resolution on Thursday that would create an "Arizona voters bill of rights," and promised legislation to expand access to the ballot. At the same time, Republicans, who are in the majority, filed a flurry of bills during the first days of the legislative session that could make it more difficult for people to vote.

Representative Reginald Bolding of Phoenix, the Democratic co-whip, said at a Capitol news conference that Arizona law needs to include clear language on the right to vote.

"Over the last several years in this state, we've seen the headlines, we've read the stories, and unfortunately many of us have witnessed or experienced the attempts to put barriers or inefficiencies in place for individuals to participate in democracy through casting their vote," Bolding said.

The proposed Democratic resolution on a "voters bill of rights" says that all voters in Arizona have the right to vote without facing unnecessary barriers, no matter where they live or what language they speak. Voters also have the right to propose and enact laws, vote by mail, and know that their elected officials are working for voters and not donors or lobbyists, the resolution says. 

Because it is a resolution and not a bill, HCR 2015 is symbolic and would have no practical legal application. But as a political tactic, the resolution is a shrewd way to pressure Republicans to sign on or explain why they don't support making it easier to vote.

Joel Edman, the executive director of the progressive Arizona Advocacy Network, said that the voting bill of rights is meant to serve as "a declaration of principles." Other bills expanding voting access will "make those rights a reality," he said.

"The idea is, I think, to state what a positive vision looks like to start, and then sketch out details," Edman said in an interview after the press conference.

Additionally, Democratic Representative Athena Salman of Tempe announced at the new conference that she will file a bill on Monday seeking to enshrine the right to vote in Arizona's constitution "so that the voters of Arizona understand that the highest governing document in Arizona protects their right to vote."

Arizona's Constitution currently states, "No person shall be entitled to vote at any general election" unless they meet criteria of age, residence, and citizenship.

Salman wants to amend the Constitution so the state no longer frames voting in the negative, she said, and characterized the way voting is treated in Arizona's Constitution as unique among the 50 states.

If the Legislature passes Salman's bill, voters would have to approve the proposed constitutional amendment in a referendum during the 2020 election.

Democrats are still the minority party in the Legislature, with a narrow 31-29 margin in the House. The voter bill-of-rights resolution and other items of legislation will most likely face a Republican blockade in committee or on the floor.

Many Republican-sponsored bills that would restrict opportunities to vote are already in the legislative hopper.

One measure authored by Republican Representative Bob Thorpe, HB 2130, would cancel a voter's registration if the individual does not vote in two consecutive primary and general elections for federal office after receiving a notice from the country recorder asking if the voter's address has changed.

At present, the county recorder asks for address confirmation after a piece of mail sent to a voter is returned undelivered. If a voter does not confirm their address, the voter's registration status is changed from active to inactive, but it is not cancelled until they don't vote in the next two general elections.

Essentially, Thorpe's bill would reduce the amount of time county recorders have to wait before kicking people off the voter rolls from two election cycles to one.

Thorpe represents Flagstaff's District 6, and made news in 2017 for a bill which would prevent college students from registering to vote using their dorm or university address. At the time, Thorpe argued that college students "unfairly influence" local elections. He did not immediately return requests for comment.

Other bills appear to target election procedures in Arizona's largest county, where a Democrat currently serves as county recorder.

HB 2140, sponsored by Republican Representative John Fillmore, would prohibit the board of supervisors of each county from authorizing county recorders to operate a so-called "emergency voting center," where voters can cast a ballot ahead of the election at their convenience, beginning at 5 p.m. on the Friday preceding the election.

HB 2140 also prohibits county recorders from verifying signatures on early ballots after 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, became the focal point of GOP ire in November for both of these practices: opening emergency voting centers on the weekend before the election and verifying voter signatures on ballots by contacting them after polls closed. Fontes' office has said that fewer than 3,000 votes were cast at the five emergency voting centers around the county.

Fillmore's colleagues, including Republican Representative Frank Carroll and four co-sponsors, have filed a similar bill restricting voting centers. A second voting bill from Carroll would authorize Arizona's attorney general to challenge the constitutionality of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 in court. Requests for comment to Carroll were not returned.

Another influential lawmaker is pushing to tighten Arizona's popular system of voting by mail.

Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita's SB 1046 would force voters on the Permanent Early Voting List who receive ballots in the mail ahead of the election to return them by mail only, barring them from dropping off a completed ballot at an early voting center or a polling place on Election Day.

She explained to the Arizona Mirror that people who receive early ballots should take responsibility and send them back by mail. “That is what early voting is, that you get it in the mail and return it in the mail. There’s a responsibility on the voter’s part,” Ugenti-Rita said.

Besides their new resolution, Democrats have struck back in the partisan duel over voting rights, authoring bills of their own.

Several of the Democrats at Thursday's press conference have sponsored a bill (HB 2211) that would do the opposite of the bills restricting emergency voting centers, and instead ensure county recorders can operate early-voting centers during the three days leading up to an election.

Another pair of bills sponsored by Representative Raquel Terán would enact same-day voter registration at polling places on Election Day and automatic voter registration upon applying for a driver's license or a non-operating identification license.

The focus on voting and election procedures, at least from the Republican caucus, appears to be at least partially the result of the contentious midterm election.

Arizona's hugely expensive Senate race and two statewide offices were decided long after polls closed, as officials working for the county recorders slowly counted ballots, day after day. (The Associated Press even had to retract its election-night call that Republican candidate Steve Gaynor had defeated now-Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat.)

Meanwhile, providing zero evidence, Arizona Republicans and President Trump cried voter fraud as the margins of victory changed. In particular, GOP officials assailed Fontes. They said his elections procedures were operating outside of the law, suggesting he was stealing the election for the Democrats in Maricopa County. In a statement three days after the election, Arizona Republican Party chair Jonathan Lines said Fontes "cannot be trusted to administer elections in Arizona." 

According to Edman, there is "a real possibility" that legislators will be more hostile to voting rights during this session, "if the bills so far this week are any indication."

"I think as our elections get more competitive and start to reflect the diversity of the state, it certainly gives some folks a reason why they might want to restrict the right to vote," Edman said.