Ugenti-Rita seeks new limits on early voting

By: - January 17, 2019 3:37 pm

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Republican complaints and suspicions about the 2018 election may fuel new restrictions on early voting in Arizona.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, has sponsored several bills that would address controversies that arose during the 2018 general election, primarily in Maricopa County. One bill would prohibit people who are on the state’s Permanent Early Voting List, who automatically receive ballots in the mail, from dropping off those ballots at polling places or early voting centers.

Under the current system, voters who are on the list, known as the PEVL, have the option of dropping off their ballots at voting centers or polling places through Election Day.

Of the nearly 1.2 million people who voted early in Maricopa County in the 2018 general election, about 14 percent, or 168,000, dropped off their ballots on Election Day.

Ugenti-Rita, who previously chaired the House Elections Committee, wants to require people with mail-in ballots to actually put those ballots in the mail, rather than dropping them off in person. Her Senate Bill 1046 would restrict in-person early voting to people who aren’t on the early voting list, and would bar county election officials from processing early ballots that aren’t received by mail. If PEVL voters who haven’t mailed in their ballots want to go to a polling place on Election Day, they can cast a provisional ballot in person after waiting in line like other voters.

Early ballots that are dropped off on Election Day are usually among the last to be counted, and the large number of them has caused prolonged vote counts. Maricopa County didn’t finish counting votes for the 2018 general election until Nov. 19, nearly two weeks after Election Day. In prior years, ballot counting in Maricopa County was completed in a similar time.

Ugenti-Rita said prolonged vote counts undermine public confidence in the election system and breed suspicion. Some Republicans, up to an including President Donald Trump, spread baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud after Democrats pulled ahead in several of Arizona’s statewide races. No evidence has ever surfaced to support such claims.

Ugenti-Rita said that if people want to receive mail-in ballots, they should vote by mail.

“That is what early voting is, that you get it in the mail and return it in the mail. There’s a responsibility on the voter’s part,” Ugenti-Rita said.

However, she said she’s open to removing the provision barring early ballot drop-offs before Election Day.

Ugenti-Rita said she was running her bills due to concerns expressed by constituents and other voters, not by any of Arizona’s state or county election officials.

Joel Edman, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Arizona Advocacy Network, said he doesn’t understand what problem Ugenti-Rita is trying to fix. In fact, he said it may actually cause more issues by leading more voters to cast provisional ballots, the counting of which is a time-consuming process.

Edman said the length of time it takes to count votes is really only a problem to “political junkies.”

“On the order of actual problems in the world, is that really one of them? Especially if it comes at the expense of people’s constitutional rights?” he said.

If Ugenti-Rita wants to speed up the counting of early ballots that get dropped off at polling places, Edman said former County Recorder Helen Purcell’s proposal to simply increase the number of vote-counting machines would be a better solution. He also pointed to a bill introduced by Rep. Frank Carroll, R-Sun City West, that would allow voters who drop off their early ballots in person to simply scan in their ballots, the same as in-person voters do, if they show photo identification.

Another of Ugenti-Rita’s election bills, Senate Bill 1032, would impose photo identification requirements on early voters who cast ballots in person. Through the Friday before Election Day, any voter can also cast early ballots in person. And those who miss the early voting period but can’t make it to the polls on Tuesday can cast ballots through emergency voting, with procedures varying by county.

Voters who cast early ballots aren’t subject to the same photo identification requirements as people who vote in person on Election Day. Instead, they sign the envelope used to mail in their early ballots, and election officials verify the signatures by comparing them to the ones that are on file for those voters. Signature verification is used for all early voting, even if someone who isn’t on the PEVL goes to an early voting center and asks for a ballot.

Ugenti-Rita said SB1032 is about consistency. And in-person early voters have more in common with Election Day voters than with other early voters who mail in their ballots, she said.

“What’s the difference between the in-person voter if they’re voting on Election Day versus maybe a week and a half prior?” she said.

A third Ugenti-Rita bill would tackle one of the most politically contentious issues of the 2018 election: emergency voting.

State law mandates that in-person early voting end at 5 p.m. on the Friday before an election. But the law allows for early voting past that time for people who have an emergency that would keep them from the polls on Election Day. Most counties only have emergency voting at their county recorders’ offices, but Maricopa County and Pima County took more expansive views of the law in 2018, opening multiple emergency voting centers.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes opened five emergency voting centers for both the primary and general elections. Republicans cried foul after Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema distributed campaign literature urging people to use emergency voting in Maricopa County – and advertising that no identification was required – and accused Fontes, a Democrat, of putting the emergency voting centers in predominantly Democratic areas, including one he opened in Tolleson, just miles from another center in Avondale, at the request of the town’s mayor and county Supervisor Steve Gallardo, both Democrats.

Fontes and Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez defended their decisions to permit emergency voting without requiring that participants affirm an emergency, saying they want to make voting as accessible as possible. Most counties offer emergency voting, though few open actual voting centers for it, and few even bother to ask voters if they have a genuine emergency that would keep them from the polls.

Senate Bill 1090 would empower county boards of supervisors to make all decisions regarding whether to open emergency voting centers and where they would be located. Voters would have to sign an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, describing their emergency.

Not all of Ugenti-Rita’s election bills are about new restrictions. Senate Bill 1054 would mandate that county election officials spend five business days after an election “curing” early ballots that have signature defects. Traditionally, if officials believe the signature on a voter’s envelope doesn’t match the signature on record, they reach out to the voter for more information.

But prior to last year, most counties didn’t do that after Election Day. That meant that any ballot that had a questionable signature after the polls closed on Election Day was likely to simply be rejected with no effort made by election officials to verify it.

Those ballots became the focal point of a dispute and subsequent lawsuit by state and local GOP groups in November. Fontes adopted a policy of curing ballots after Election Day in response to a lawsuit threat by the American Civil Liberties Union, League of United Latin American Citizens and other civil and voting rights groups threatened legal action against counties that didn’t seek to rehabilitate those ballots.

In response, Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines threatened to sue counties over both ballot curing and emergency voting.

The day after the November election, several county GOP groups went to court, asking a Maricopa County judge to either bar all counties from curing ballots after Election Day or requiring all counties to adopt that policy. The Republican groups and the counties, as well as several other parties, reached a settlement under which all 15 counties would cure ballots.

County recorders cured more than 8,200 ballots after Election Day that had signature issues. Nearly 7,000 were in Maricopa County.

Ugenti-Rita’s bill would ensure that counties continue to cure ballots after Election Day in future elections. However, most of the ballots that still need curing on or after Election Day are early ballots that were dropped off in person, meaning Ugenti-Rita’s bill will be far less consequential if her other legislation passes.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, declined to comment on Ugenti-Rita’s legislation, saying she’d like to talk with county recorders first. But in her inaugural speech, Hobbs vowed to opposed any new restrictions on the right to vote.

And regarding Ugenti-Rita’s bill on early ballot drop-offs, Hobbs told the Arizona Mirror, “I campaigned on making it easier for eligible voters to vote, and I think it does the opposite.”

Fontes said he didn’t want to comment until he’d read the legislation.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”