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Arizona Republicans Enact Sweeping Changes To State's Early Voting List

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, seen here during an April 15 bill signing, on Tuesday signed legislation making it easier to remove infrequent voters from a list of those who automatically get a mail-in ballot each election.
Ross D. Franklin
Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, seen here during an April 15 bill signing, on Tuesday signed legislation making it easier to remove infrequent voters from a list of those who automatically get a mail-in ballot each election.

Shortly after Arizona Republican lawmakers approved it, GOP Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday quickly signed a bill into law that could remove tens of thousands of voters from the state's early ballot mailing list.

Voters who sign up for the state's Permanent Early Voting List — PEVL for short — are automatically sent a ballot for every election in which they're eligible to vote.

The PEVL has grown increasingly popular with each passing election in Arizona. And whether voters actually use their early ballot or not has — to date — been irrelevant.

But Senate Bill 1485, sponsored by Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, takes the "permanent" out of the PEVL.

Her legislation rebrands the PEVL as the "Active" Early Voting List, a name that highlights the main purpose of the measure — to remove voters from the list if they don't use their early ballot at least once in two straight two-year election cycles, and if they don't respond to a notice from county officials, warning them of the removal. Voting the old-fashioned way, in person at a polling site, wouldn't count, either.

SB 1485 is not retroactive, and it won't alter the PEVL until after the 2024 elections.

The bill passed along party lines, 16-14, in the state Senate on Tuesday.

Democrats accused Republicans of pushing for an unnecessary change that will make it harder to vote — a response, they said, to record voter turnout in 2020, when President Biden became the first Democrat to win Arizona since 1996.

"The desperate desire of one party to game the system and hold onto power by erecting hurdles for voters of color and those with limited means overwhelmed any professed support for good public policy," House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding said in a statement. "Democrats, independents, seniors, Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, women and young people — if you ever believed that your voice and your vote didn't matter, this bill is an absolute reminder that it does."

Republican lawmakers defended the legislation as an effort to clean up the voting list and ensure ballots aren't being mailed to voters who've moved, are no longer eligible to vote or are deceased. Others said it was simply necessary to restore voters' confidence in the election process.

"This bill is simple," Ducey said in a video of himself signing the measure. "It's all about election integrity."

Overcoming hurdles

The bill had stalled for weeks in the Arizona House as criticism of Republicans' legislative efforts around voting mounted in the state and around the country.

SB 1485 was one of three bills targeted by Greater Phoenix Leadership, a coalition of Phoenix-area CEOs including Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill, as part of a GOP effort to disenfranchise voters.

"These proposals are a concerted effort from those in Arizona — and across the nation — who wish to sow additional doubts about our elections in the minds of voters, and feed into the paranoia that has plagued our political discourse over the past several months," business leaders wrote in an open letter to Arizona lawmakers. "Disturbingly, each of these proposals have one thing in common: making it more difficult for Arizonans to vote."

Republicans pushed ahead, but after clearing the House on a party-line vote in April, SB 1485 stalled again in the state Senate, when a lone GOP state senator broke ranks and voted against the measure.

At the time, Sen. Kelly Townsend said she'd refuse to vote for any election legislation until after Senate Republicans complete a controversial review of the 2020 general election in Maricopa County.

That review is still ongoing. But on Tuesday, Townsend flipped, though she justified her decision by announcing she'd been assured Arizona lawmakers would consider more changes to the state's elections in the coming weeks. Townsend did not specify what "issues" she believes need to be fixed prior to elections in 2022.

Ducey takes swipes at critics

Throughout the legislative process, Republicans bristled at criticism that the bill targets certain demographics of voters, but they did adopt amendments to try and make SB 1485 more palatable.

The legislation would have initially required voters to use their early ballot in at least one primary or general election over two consecutive election cycles. Critics noted that requirement was particularly harmful for Arizona's many independent voters, who don't automatically receive ballots for partisan primary elections, so Republicans added certain municipal elections to the list of votes that would count toward achieving an "active" voter status.

Republicans also gave voters more time to respond to a notice, mailed by county election officials, to avoid being removed from the early voting list, from 30 to 90 days. County officials can also proactively reach out to voters by phone or email, rather than simply sending the mail notice.

Still, some Democrats had hoped Ducey, who defended Arizona's election process in front of former President Donald Trump last fall, would veto a bill they characterized as unnecessary.

Democrats like Sen. Martin Quezada have warned that SB 1485 and other measures would disproportionately harm low-income communities and communities of color.

On Tuesday, Ducey accused critics of using "deceptive and heated rhetoric" to lobby against the bill, and said his past defense of Arizona's election doesn't preclude him from changing the system.

"I'm very proud of Arizona's election system. And I've been a vocal champion of it, from the state capitol to the Oval Office," Ducey said. "Because of that, some have suggested that means I can never ever support any improvements. That's ridiculous."

Ducey also took a preemptive swat at the business community, though he was careful to aim his critique at large corporations outside of Arizona.

"For reasons I don't fully understand, elsewhere in America, large corporations have decided to insert themselves into the debate over election law," Ducey said.

"These businesses have seemed to embrace a static view of elections, freeze the systems the way they are, view any change suspiciously," Ducey added. "It's wrong. Dead wrong."

Some Democrats pointed out potential economic consequences as a blowback against the bill, noting that Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game out of Atlanta after Georgia lawmakers approved a sweeping overhaul of the state's elections.

Arizona is scheduled to host the Super Bowl in 2023, as well as the NCAA Men's Final Four in 2024.

Copyright 2021 KJZZ

Ben Giles