Nearly 90% of Arizona voters use early ballots. Republicans would eliminate that to combat imagined fraud.

By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror

PHOENIX — Driven by false claims that the 2020 election was plagued by fraud that changed the outcome in statewide races — but not their own victories — Republican legislators on Monday gave initial approval to a host of proposals that critics say will make it harder for Arizonans to vote.

The changes include doing away with early mail-in ballots for virtually every Arizona voter, barring in-person early voting, requiring voters to present identification to drop off early ballots on Election Day and more.

And in pursuit of combating the imagined claims of fraud that fueled the Arizona Senate’s partisan review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County — which that examination couldn’t find conclusive evidence of — the Republicans on the Senate Government Committee embraced changes that will result in fewer Arizonans casting ballots, said Sen. Martin Quezada.

“That’s the theme here,” the Glendale Democrat said. “Each one of these bills is going to end up with less people voting.”

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.

The Republican Party has defended political violence to overturn an election as “legitimate political discourse.”

Eliminating early mail-in voting

The most radical measure the Government Committee approved was Senate Bill 1404, which would end the state’s no-excuse early voting system that was implemented in the 1990s and is regularly used by more than 80% of Arizona voters. The proposal would limit mail-in early voting to only those people who are physically unable to visit the polls, are 65 years old or older, live more than 15 miles away from their polling place, are visually impaired, can’t attend the polls on Election Day for religious reasons or who live overseas. 

Early voting is not just popular among voters, but also among legislators. The Arizona Capitol Times reported in 2020 that 72 of the 90 legislators at the time — including nearly four of every five Republicans — were on the Permanent Early Voting List and received mail-in ballots every election. Sen. David Gowan, the Sierra Vista Republican who sponsored SB1404, was one of the few legislators not on the early voting list.

Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, noted that the bill doesn’t include provisions for emergencies, meaning that a voter who is unexpectedly out-of-state or otherwise unavailable would be unable to cast a ballot. Gowan acknowledged that would be the case, unless the voter’s emergency happened at least 11 days before Election Day so they could request a ballot. 

Jennifer Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, said that eliminating the Active Early Voting List — legislators renamed the Permanent Early Voting List in 2021 after changing the law to remove voters who don’t cast ballots — flies in the face of public opinion. 

“(Early voting) wasn’t foisted on voters. It’s an opt-in system, and voters have opted into that system in droves,” she said. 

An estimated 89% of voters in 2020 used an early ballot, and more Republicans than Democrats voted early.  

An election holiday, but no early voting sites

Mesa Republican Kelly Townsend, a vocal proponent of baseless allegations of fraud in the 2020 elections, wants to make the dates of the primary and general elections legal state holidays, but only if the state also ends early in-person voting. Her Senate Bill 1474 allows employees working on the holidays to be absent from their jobs to vote without wage penalties, eliminating the requirement to notify their employers and receive a time slot. 

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, proposed an amendment that would keep in-person early voting intact, saying he liked the idea of election days as state holidays, but reducing access was too big a trade-off. The amendment was roundly rejected by all four Republican senators on the committee, although Townsend said she would discuss it with her fellow  Republicans. 

“I still think precinct voting on the day of and an election holiday is better,” she said. 

Limiting access to the polls was precisely the point for some who showed up in support of the bills like Townsend and Gowan’s and cited everything from faulty technology to a suspicious overabundance of mail-in ballots for Joe Biden that they observed during the controversial Senate “audit.” (That so-called “audit,” which was run by unqualified conspiracy theorists who tried and failed to overturn the 2020 election, found no evidence of fraud and concluded that Biden won the election.) One supporter, Barbara Jennings, said that keeping elections to one day and monitoring who votes would prevent voter fraud — particularly from undocumented immigrants, who she said swayed the outcome in 2020. There is no proof of that claim. 

“Every legal person should have the opportunity to vote — everyone with an ID,” she said. 

Gonzales rebutted that there is no proof that fraud affected the 2020 presidential election, or that non-citizens voted. She also noted a problem with the bill is that it guarantees a holiday for state employees, but not other workers. Voters employed by businesses that can’t or won’t shut down, like hospitals or restaurants, don’t benefit from a state holiday — and removing access to early in-person voting further limits their voting rights. 

Ballot tracking and on-site counting

Other proposals to increase the monitoring of ballots were made in direct response to unfounded beliefs that election workers changed votes from Donald Trump to Biden during a process known as adjudication, in which a ballot is duplicated because it can’t be read by the ballot tabulating machines. Senate Bill 1411 and Senate Bill 1362 both increase the monitoring of ballots. 

Under SB1411, counties with more than 100,000 residents would be required to institute an early ballot tracking system, similar to those already available in Maricopa and Pima counties that allows voters to  receive email or text message updates on when their ballots are mailed, received, verified and counted. 

And if SB1362 becomes law, people dropping off their early ballots at polling places on Election Day will be required to present identification and the ballots will be processed immediately. But county governments are concerned about the cost and logistical issues of doing so, Marson said. 

Currently, such ballots are collected at polling places and transported to the county’s central tabulation facility after the polls close. At that point, they are treated like early ballots returned by mail: The signature on the affidavit envelope is verified and the ballot is then counted. Requiring voters to present identification just to drop off a ballot means long lines and wait times for voters, and a greater need for poll workers at a time when it’s already difficult to recruit volunteers, Marson said. 

And such a change directly conflicts with the convenience of early ballots, which allow Arizonans to fill them out on their own time and drop them off when they can, or have family members drop them off instead, she added. 

But the biggest challenge, Marson said, is that SB1362 requires polling sites to designate areas that are physically separate from in-person voting for early ballot processing. Marson said at least 80% of counties would need to find new polling locations to meet that space requirement — and each site would need at least one tabulation machine. Maricopa County alone will have an estimated 235 voting locations in the next election.

But for election dead-enders like Flagstaff Republican Sen. Wendy Rogers, who has built her political brand on spreading lies about the 2020 election, any complications that result from proposals like SB1362 are worth it. 

“It matters little to me if we need more space or workers. The price of our democracy is at stake — and it has value we can’t even put a price on,” she said.

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.

Pro-Trump protesters at TCF Center in Detroit. Photo by Ken Coleman | Michigan Advance

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