Republican lawmakers move to clean up voter rolls

By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror

PHOENIX — In a meeting riddled with false accusations of voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election, Republican senators approved bills in the Senate Government Committee to increase the monitoring of voter registration rolls and purge more voters from the voting rolls. 

Arizona was among the states that pioneered mail-in voting, and it has allowed voters to automatically receive early ballots for about two decades. In 2020, 89% of voters used an early ballot to cast their votes. But conservatives unhappy with the election’s outcome argue the method is faulty because it allows felons and undocumented immigrants to evade detection and cast illegal ballots — allegations for which they have no proof and which aren’t backed up by decades of early voting in Arizona

Others have claimed that ballots erroneously sent to the residences of voters who have since moved or died are filled out by the new residents and then counted. In Arizona, voters must sign an affidavit that is returned with early ballots. Elections officials, who receive professional training in signature verification, match those signatures to the ones on file for each voter. 

To address the issue of under revised voter rolls, Flagstaff GOP Sen. Wendy Rogers wants to tighten the review process. Currently, county recorders verify the addresses of registered voters by May 1, in preparation for the next year’s primary or general election. If voters are found to have moved but remain within the county, their registration is updated to reflect that. Voters then have 35 days to respond to a mailed notice or verify their address change online. If they don’t, their registration is moved to inactive status and they won’t receive a ballot in the mail. After years on the inactive list, voters must renew their registration if they want to continue voting. 

Rogers’ Senate Bill 1380 ramps up supervision by requiring county recorders to verify voter residences every month. It also requires them to use the U.S. Postal Service’s address database, the National Change of Address (NCOA), through which residents voluntarily notify the postal service of their residence changes, when before county recorders were allowed but not forced to use it. 

Barbara Jennings, who has become a staple at this year’s discussions of election security and who consistently espouses false claims of voter fraud, spoke in support of the bill and heatedly accused Democratic committee members of lying about the integrity of the presidential election.

“I feel like you guys are on the right side of history and the right side of God,” she told the Republican senators during Thursday’s meeting of the Senate Government Committee. 

A key part of conservatives’ evidence that the 2020 election was fraudulent is that the uncurated voter rolls allow for the filing of extra ballots. Several supporters of the bill cited the so-called “audit” that Senate President Karen Fann ordered of the election in Maricopa County, which has been largely debunked, as evidence of their claims.

Tucson Democrat Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales disputed the characterization of the election as fraudulent, saying none of her constituents had reached out with concerns and that there was no solid proof any corruption took place. 

“(My constituents) feel secure in the elections, otherwise they would be here to speak,” she said. 

Rogers, who has curated her image around election conspiracy theories, said the state of election rolls is the product of a faulty system. 

“Dead people are voting, illegal immigrants are voting, non-residents are voting. Every illegal corrupted vote takes away my vote and your vote and everyone’s constituent’s votes,” she said firmly. 

Apache Junction Republican Sen. Kelly Townsend, who chairs the committee, tackled the concern that convicted felons are voting despite the fact that it’s illegal for them to do so. Townsend said the issue was brought to her by an unnamed news reporter who was told some felons in Phoenix were being signed up to vote, unaware that their voting rights had been rescinded. Her solution is to increase communication between the secretary of state and county courts to speed up the rates at which felons are removed from the statewide voter database. 

Senate Bill 1477 instructs superior court clerks to send monthly reports of felony convictions to the secretary of state, who would then use the records to cancel felons’ voter registration in the statewide database and notify appropriate county recorders to do the same with their own registration rolls. Until now, these adjustments were periodic, with no specific time frame in statute. 

Proponents of the bill belabored the point that felons had easy access to ballots. In actuality, the process for voting as a person with a felony conviction is much more difficult. People with one felony conviction have their voting rights restored once their sentence and probationary period is complete, but two or more felonies require petitioning the court, which may decide against reinstating the right. If the conviction included a prison sentence, petitions cannot be filed until two years after it’s been completed.

Not content with discussions of a fraudulent election, Jeff Zink, a Republican candidate in the heavily Democratic 3rd Congressional District, brought up Black Lives Matter activist Pamela Moses, who was recently sentenced to six years for illegally voting with a felony conviction, as proof that elections are being undermined. Moses was given incorrect information by her probation officer about her restored voting rights in Tennessee

The Arizona Association of Counties, which also represents Arizona courts, supports the updated guidelines in Townsend’s bill, said Executive Director Jen Marson. 

“The clerks and courts don’t have an issue with that,” she assured. 

For Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, the sole dissenting vote left after his two Democratic colleagues left the room, the bill is not only unnecessary but also a step in the wrong direction. Clerks already provide reports and felons are already stripped of their voting rights. Quezada said that voting rights should be reinstated, not continue to be policed. 

“People committed a crime, were sentenced and punished and they were released. They paid their penance. The best way to get them to participate in our society is to give them the right to vote again,” he said. 

Each bill discussed during the hearing that Republican senators claimed would secure future elections from the kind of corruption they believe occurred during the 2020 election was passed along party lines in the Senate Government Committee on Thursday. The bills will next move onto debate by the full Senate.

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.

 Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

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