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Analysis

Arizona’s Voter Suppression Bills Are Dangerously Close to Becoming Law

The legislation, fueled by lies about nonexistent voter fraud, will make it harder for people to vote.

  • Marian K. Schneider
April 28, 2021

Arizona is taking center stage in the relent­less effort to rein in voter parti­cip­a­tion in the name of “elec­tion secur­ity,” advan­cing the first in a batch of bills aimed at making vote by mail harder. These Repub­lican-led efforts are based on the discred­ited lie that the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion was stolen and mail-in voting is insec­ure. Yet, it was only after the statewide federal elec­tions in Arizona were won by the oppos­ing polit­ical party suddenly Arizon­a’s mail-in voting processes became untrust­worthy.

The Demo­cratic wins at the top of the ticket, albeit narrow, were driven by high turnout and a rise in mail voting usage. Arizona had histor­ic­ally high turnout in 2020, about 10 percent higher and about 800,000 more voters than in 2016. In 2020, out of 3.4 million ballots coun­ted, 2.4 million were cast by mail. Indi­gen­ous voters and espe­cially those living on tribal lands played a decis­ive role. State legis­lat­ive races were very close in some districts, with both houses of the Arizona Legis­lature almost evenly divided

Arizon­ans are extremely concerned that proposed changes to the “perman­ent early voting list,” also known as the PEVL, would disrupt long­stand­ing prac­tices that encour­age voting. The list is wildly popu­lar in the state. It makes voting much easier because voters on the list auto­mat­ic­ally receive their ballot in the mail without having to affirm­at­ively request it. About 3.2 million voters are on the list right now, and voters of all polit­ical stripes are almost equally repres­en­ted. The list currently consists of 36 percent Repub­lic­ans, 35 percent Demo­crats, and 29 percent unaf­fili­ated voters or those registered with other parties.

At the same time as attacks on mail in voting are moving through the legis­lature, the Arizona Senate is engaged in an unpre­ced­en­ted legis­lat­ive “audit” of the ballots of a single county — Mari­copa — in a quest to discover irreg­u­lar­it­ies in those ballots. The senate is proceed­ing with the audit even though Mari­copa County already conduc­ted its own audit of ballots and a forensic audit of the voting machines, and both confirmed the outcome of the 2020 elec­tion.

This audit could also be used as an excuse for passing bills that restrict access to voting. In fact,  a Repub­lican senator has announced she is hold­ing up all voting bills — posit­ive or negat­ive — until the results of the audit are repor­ted because she is convinced the review of Mari­copa ballots will reveal issues that need a legis­lat­ive remedy. But it’s only a tempor­ary reprieve because as long as the legis­lature remains in session, anti-demo­cratic bills can be brought to a floor vote, passed, and head over to the governor.

One of them is S.B. 1485, which the Arizona House passed last week, failed in the Senate, and is currently under a motion for recon­sid­er­a­tion. It would require counties to purge from the early voting list voters who did not vote an early voting ballot in both the primary and general elec­tion in two consec­ut­ive elec­tion cycles. Even if they voted in person in every elec­tion during the four-year period, they would still be removed from the early voting list because they didn’t use their early ballot.

Remov­ing voters from the perman­ent early voting list makes it more likely that those people will not parti­cip­ate in elec­tions. Increas­ing oppor­tun­it­ies for mail-in voting brings marginal voters into in elec­tions and retains voters who might other­wise choose not to parti­cip­ate. Current estim­ates predict that 125,000 to 150,000 voters will be jettisoned from the early voting list if this bill is signed into law. If it had been enacted in 2019, approx­im­ately 126,000 Arizon­ans who voted in 2020 would have been removed. A voter who does not receive their mail ballot will have to vote in person, which can be diffi­cult for some people, espe­cially those living on remote tribal lands. The predicted number of voters who risk removal are well above the margins of victory in both the 2018 and 2020 statewide federal elec­tions.

Unfor­tu­nately, S.B. 1485 is just one in a series of bills intro­duced this year that aim to limit access to mail voting. S.B. 1713 would require voters to include their date of birth and one of two accept­able ID numbers when they return their early ballot: an Arizona driver’s license number or voter regis­tra­tion number. By exclud­ing other types of ID, the state is clos­ing the door on many voters who do not have these numbers. Moreover, the universe of voters who do not have a driver’s license dispro­por­tion­ately consists of voters of color and older voters. While the bill allows voters to use their voter regis­tra­tion number on the return envel­ope, most voters do not have that number read­ily avail­able. This bill would force voters to jump through addi­tional hoops to send back their early ballot. Import­antly, fail­ure to include this addi­tional inform­a­tion gives elec­tion offi­cials a reason to toss out those ballots.

Several other restrict­ive bills would make it harder for voters to fix — or “cure” — a mail ballot that has prob­lems, and they threaten crim­inal penal­ties for both elec­tion offi­cials and citizens for trying to encour­age mail voting. S.B. 1003 would limit the time for curing a miss­ing signa­ture on a mail in ballot to 7 p.m. on Elec­tion Day. The cure period for mismatched signa­tures and other miss­ing inform­a­tion is longer: voters have until the fifth busi­ness day after the elec­tion to do so.

H.B. 2792 would make it a felony for an elec­tion offi­cial to send a voter an early ballot unless the voter requests it. S.B. 1106 would, among other things, subject any person to crim­inal liab­il­ity for know­ingly assist­ing another person that resides in another state in voting includ­ing by forward­ing an early ballot to that person. The broad contours of the bill could encom­pass seem­ingly benign action, like a parent send­ing a mail ballot to their child away at college in another state.

All of these bills have already been passed by one cham­ber of the legis­lature and have been passed out of commit­tee by the other, so they stand a real chance of head­ing to the governor’s desk soon. Compound­ing these attempts to limit voter parti­cip­a­tion, the legis­lature has already tied the hands of local elec­tion offi­cials by enact­ing a new law this month that prohib­its state and local elec­tion offi­cials from receiv­ing or spend­ing “private monies” in the admin­is­tra­tion of elec­tions. This legis­la­tion, like others around the coun­try, is a back­lash against the phil­an­thropic grants to help elec­tion offi­cials to cope with the increased costs of running the 2020 elec­tion amidst a pandemic. True to form, Arizona did not attempt to remedy the short­fall with addi­tional tax dollars.

As state legis­latures perpetu­ate the myth that mail voting is insec­ure, it’s vitally import­ant to call out these blatantly undemo­cratic efforts to prevent certain people from voting. Grass­roots organ­iz­a­tions in Arizona deserve enorm­ous credit for beat­ing back the worst bills in Arizona during this session. While the Arizona legis­lat­ive “audit” and its attend­ant polit­ical games­man­ship plays out, it’s still neces­sary to guard against danger­ous attacks on mail-in voting that could result in disen­fran­chising tens of thou­sands of voters.

The nation­wide dislike of voter suppres­sion meas­ures has left little doubt: Amer­ic­ans, from every­day people to high-rank­ing corpor­ate exec­ut­ives, under­stand that laws seek­ing to deter parti­cip­a­tion consti­tute an unac­cept­able attack on demo­cracy. It’s well past time for state legis­lat­ors to stop these efforts.