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Ballot Chase

State lawmakers seek tighter rein on early ballots

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A pair of bills designed to tighten the rules on the use of early ballots are awaiting a final vote in the Arizona House of Representatives.

State Sen. Michelle Reagan, who sponsored the legislation, said the bills are designed to ensure that early ballots are only sent to voters who want them and to prevent strangers from collecting—and possibly tampering with—early ballots from voters before Election Day.

But opponents of the bills argue that the legislation is designed to upend voter-outreach efforts that are leading to more Latinos and other Democratic-leaning demographics casting ballots in Arizona.

"These really are regressive, anti-voter bills," said Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network. "They're not reform, and they're not necessary."

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said that while the bills aren't perfect, they are about attempting to limit the possibilities of election fraud and run a more organized election.

"It's not targeting anybody and it's not voter suppression," Rodriguez said.

As a Hispanic Democrat, Rodriquez is an unlikely culprit in any effort to disenfranchise Latino voters. In fact, she takes credit for spearheading the effort to create the Permanent Early Voting List in the first place.

Early voting—vote-by-mail, as it's also called—was once reserved for people who had some kind of serious problem in getting to the polls on Election Day (such as a medical condition that prevented you from getting to the polls or travel plans that would take you out of town on Election Day). But about two decades ago, state lawmakers loosened the rules to allow anyone to request an early ballot.

In the two decades since, voting by mail has become the preferred method of casting a ballot for the majority of voters. In Pima County, about one in four voters cast early ballots in 1996. By last year, more than two out of three voters cast early ballots.

Part of that increase was driven by candidates who took advantage of the system. Sophisticated campaigns would collect early-ballot requests for data-mining before dropping them on the county recorders' offices in large batches, timed so that the early ballots would arrive in voters' mailboxes at the same time as the campaigns' mailers.

As the number of early ballot requests grew, county recorders were swamped by requests. Each postcard had to be processed. Some campaigns dropped off huge bundles of requests just days before an election. Some voters would be confused as to why their early ballot hadn't arrived in their mailbox sooner.

So in 2007, Rodriguez pushed for a bill to create a Permanent Early Voter List, or PEVL. Voters who wanted early ballots in every election put their names on the PEVL list. At the start of every election, the recorders can send out ballots to everyone on the list. It saves time and money to do the bulk mailing and all the campaigns start off on equal footing, with a list of voters who have received early ballots.

But the PEVL has had its own unintended consequences. The program puts hundreds of thousands of ballots into the mail—and while most of those end up being properly cast, a small percentage get lost in the mail, discarded by the voters or arrive at a mailbox after someone has moved away or died.

That small percentage of misplaced ballots created headaches for poll workers on Election Day last year. People who had lost or spoiled their ballots arrived at the polling place to cast a ballot, but had to cast provisional ballots so that county officials could make sure they had not sent in their early ballots. On top of that, some people arrived at the polls to turn in their early ballots. And in some cases, activists would arrive with piles of ballots other than their own.

All of that led to a lengthy vote count after the election that drew national attention as election officials sorted through the provisional and early ballots.

Reagan's bills would attempt to tighten up the early-voting process. SB 1003 would end the ability of political organizations to sweep up thousands of early ballots for delivery. As it passed out of the Senate, the bill made delivering an early ballot for someone else a Class 6 felony if the person delivering the ballot was in the employ or a volunteer of a political committee.

Reagan said last week that the bill would be amended to allow anyone to turn in a ballot, as long as they had written permission from the voter through a form on the outside of the ballot envelope.

"Anybody can bring in anybody's ballot as long as you give them permission," Reagan said.

Meanwhile, SB 1261 would clear names off the PEVL list. If PEVL voters failed to cast an early ballot in both the primary and general election in the two most recent federal elections, county recorders are allowed to send them notices that their names are scheduled to be removed from the PEVL list. If voters do not respond to the postcard in writing, their names must be removed from the PEVL list.

The bills passed out of the House Rules Committee on April 1, but have not yet come to a vote on the House floor. Reagan said she was hoping to see the bills amended before getting a final House vote this week, but as of Tuesday, April 23, they had not been scheduled for consideration.

Maricopa County political organizer Randy Parraz, who worked with Citizens for a Better Arizona to boost voter outreach in Maricopa County last year, says the changes "are reaction to the work that we've done. Is it a coincidence that now, as more Latinos are starting to register and participate in unprecedented levels, that they are starting to pass legislation to purge people from the voter rolls and make it a felony to turn in somebody else's ballot? ... That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard of."

Parraz credits Citizens for a Better Arizona for signing up more than 12,000 voters on the Permanent Early Voter List and for gathering more than 4,000 ballots in Maricopa County, primarily from Latino voters in precincts that had traditionally had low turnout.

"This is a bunch of elitist bureaucrats who are getting involved in things that they shouldn't be involved in," says Parraz. "Their role should not be about efficiency, it should be about how to applaud and support efforts that get people to actually vote. I can assure you that the ballots that we turned in probably would not have been turned in had we not went to people's doors and asked them to vote and told them how important voting was."

But Reagan says that no other state in the country allows a group to gather thousands of early ballots for delivery to the polling places or the county recorder's office.

"There is no reason why people, anonymously, should have possession of 4,000 ballots," Reagan said. "That's insanity."

Rodriguez worries about the potential of groups gathering ballots and then failing to turn them in.

"Every election, I've done a public service announcement saying don't give your ballot to a stranger," Rodriguez said.

But Parraz complains that election officials and state lawmakers are overstepping with the legislation.

"We are not in romper room," Parraz said. "This is not kindergarten. These are adults we're dealing with. They can do whatever the hell they want with their ballots. They can use it as cat litter. They can use as a placemat or they can turn it in and vote."

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