By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — Early voters in Arizona would be barred from putting their ballots in mailboxes and would instead be required to put them in ballot drop boxes that would take a picture of every voter if under a Republican proposal that won preliminary approval last week.
Under the legislation, drop boxes would be outfitted with 24-hour photo or video cameras that can link any ballots inserted into the box to that person’s image. Each person would be allowed to deposit no more than seven ballots into a drop box, and the boxes would be required to generate a receipt showing how many ballots a person deposited. (It would also have to keep an internal copy of every receipt). And if the camera malfunctions, the box must be designed to prevent ballots from being deposited.
“If we can’t get an outright ban (on drop-boxes) we need to come up with these ‘smart’ drop boxes. In the meantime — while we’re working on those — I would like to see drop-boxes in a secure location,” said Sen. Kelly Townsend, a Republican from Apache Junction and the sponsor of Senate Bill 1571.
Townsend, who also chairs the Senate Government Committee that approved the bill Thursday, said she intended to amend it later to remove the ban on returning early ballots by mail. She said she hoped to push the bill through committee as an alternative in case a bill passed out of the same committee last week prohibiting drop boxes fails in the full Senate.
State law already requires drop boxes to be placed in secure locations approved by a county’s board of supervisors. Boxes that are outside must be tied down to concrete or similarly immovable objects to prevent tampering or removal.
Townsend said she would prefer having all drop boxes moved inside busy places like the Motor Vehicle Division, where potential ballot stuffers can be discouraged by crowds, though such a provision isn’t included in SB1571.
There is no proof that drop boxes — mailbox-like boxes that offer voters a convenient way to cast their ballots — enable fraud, but Republicans and right-wing media in recent weeks have focused on videos of people dropping ballots into drop boxes, alleging that apparently normal behavior is suspicious and evidence of fraud.
Drop boxes have become a target of election dead-enders, and some states have faced major court battles over their use. Republican lawmakers in other states are targeting their use: There are similar bills in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Republicans in Arizona and in state legislatures across the nation are pushing hundreds of measures to add barriers to voting and make it easier for them to overturn results they don’t like, often under the guise of stopping the exceedingly rare election fraud that they falsely claim is the reason why Democrats won close races in 2018 and 2020.
Among the bill’s supporters was Chris Hansel, a volunteer for the Arizona Senate’s biased “audit” of Maricopa County’s election, who reiterated Townsend’s unfounded ballot stuffing claim. He supported the allegation by citing a report from True the Vote, a conservative Texas-based group that peddles election conspiracy theories across the country, which allegedly found a network of drop-box-stuffers in Georgia and one man paid thousands of dollars to do the same in 2020. The group refuses to identify the man paid to commit fraud and has in fact made similar allegations in the past that were investigated and determined to be baseless.
Jen Marson, the executive director for the Arizona Association of Counties, said the bill introduced a host of logistical issues for county elections officials, who oversee elections in Arizona.
The most concerning thing, she said, was that drop boxes with the features the bill requires don’t exist. Townsend said earlier that she had spoken with Runbeck, a local election equipment development company, about creating the ATM-like machines. She admitted it was still a work in progress and would be open to starting a pilot program for the boxes in one county at first.
Marson was also concerned about the legal ramifications of requiring “smart” drop boxes. The whole idea of drop boxes is to ease voter access, she said, and provide a convenient place where voters can safely and securely cast their early ballots.
But locations that are convenient and those that allow for electrical power and provide broadband don’t always go hand-in-hand, especially in rural Arizona.
“If we have to remove the ballot drop boxes in some of our outer areas (where) we have them now, like on reservation land in particular, we will 100% be sued,” she warned.
Access to drop-boxes in rural areas allow the voices of those voters to be heard, and changing the equipment in ways they might not be able to support would be detrimental, Marson said..
“We think there are definitely places in rural Arizona where a powered, monitored and on-video drop box just isn’t feasible. But (traditional drop boxes are) very appropriate for people in those areas to return their ballots to us if, for some reason, mail is a challenge,” she explained.
Townsend suggested adding solar panels to drop-boxes in those communities. Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu, agreed with her solution, adding that his Native American colleagues on the panel — Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson and Sen. Theresa Hatathlie, D-Coal Mine Canyon — could attest to the viability of solar power on the reservation.
“I’m sure that our members on this dais will confirm that the sun shines on tribal land,” he said.
Borrelli has sponsored a bill with drop-box security measures that closely mirrors the Secretary of State’s Election Procedures Manual and is less transformative than those in Townsend’s measure. (The manual has the authority of the law.) But the proposal, Senate Bill 1629, co-sponsored by Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, was amended during the committee hearing to remove its drop-box rules.
Fann has said that any other bill that conflicts with the provisions in SB1629 will likely be dead. Removing the drop box provisions from that bill opens the door for potentially stricter requirements to be passed in other bills.
For critics who believe drop-boxes facilitate fraud, this constitutes a victory and a move towards — in their view — improved procedures. Gary Golka, who claimed he witnessed drop-box fraud but also admitted officials he notified found no issues, said he doesn’t agree with the use of drop boxes and would rather they be eliminated altogether, but that SB1571 is an acceptable compromise in the meantime.
“If we must have them, then I support this bill,” he told the committee.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.