Senate committee votes to ban voters from dropping off early ballots

By: - January 24, 2019 3:59 pm

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, watches the Senate Judiciary Committee debate several of her election bills on Jan. 24, 2019. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

Nearly a quarter million Arizonans who dropped off their early ballots at polling places on Election Day in November would lose that ability in future years under a bill that passed its first legislative hurdle in a Senate committee on Thursday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed three election-related bills sponsored by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale.

One of those bills, Senate Bill 1046, would require voters who receive early ballots in the mail to return them only by mail, rather than bringing them to polling places before or on Election Day. People who don’t mail in their ballots would be able to vote at a polling place, but would have to wait in line and go through the same process as other in-person voters.

The committee passed SB1046 on a 4-3 party-line vote, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats in opposition.

Under the current system, early ballots that are dropped off on Election Day are among the last to be counted, which can be a lengthy process as election officials verify voters’ signatures on their early ballot envelopes. After the November election, it took county election officials nearly two weeks to count the votes, during which time Democrats took the lead in several high-profile statewide races in which they’d trailed at the end of Election Day.

Ugenti-Rita said SB1046 will provide more timely results, eliminate confusion about early voting and reinforce that Arizona’s vote-by-mail system is, in fact, conducted through the mail as intended.

“Remember, this is a convenience that you sign up for. You don’t have to be on it,” she said. “It’s the responsibility of the voter to return it by mail. So, we complete that circle. And this will reinforce that.”

According to the Secretary of State’s Office, about 228,000 voters dropped off early ballots on Election Day across the state. That figure doesn’t include voters who dropped off their early ballots prior to Election Day, because election officials count them with other early ballots that arrive in the mail. Thirty-seven percent of those voters were Republicans, 34 percent were Democrats and 29 percent were independents or other parties. Of the more than 1.5 million Arizonans who cast early ballots in November, about 42 percent were Republican and 33 percent were Democrats.

Public testimony in the packed hearing room was overwhelming against the proposal, with election officials from both major parties, voting rights advocates and other activists calling it a solution in search of a problem. Opponents said many voters prefer to hold onto their early ballots to give themselves the maximum amount of time to make their decisions. Some opponents called the bill a form of voter suppression.

“If we don’t like the way our election system works, I think we should be fixing it by adding more options,” said Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale. “Instead, we’re taking away an option that is used a lot simply because we don’t like it. We haven’t even identified that it’s an actual problem or that it’s causing the problems that sponsor is trying to solve.”

Some argued that banning people from dropping off their early ballots in person wouldn’t actually result in faster vote counts. Jennifer Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, said most early voters either mail in their ballots shortly after receiving them, or wait until the deadline on the Wednesday before the election. She said the people who drop off their ballots on Election Day will instead send them on or near the deadline, and as a result, SB1046 would not result in faster vote counts.

Rivko Knox, of the League of Women Voters of Arizona, said election results didn’t take any longer in 2018 than they did in previous elections. There only difference between 2018 and other elections is that there were close races, she said.

Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, the committee’s chairman, said that issue could be addressed by moving up the deadline for mailing in ballots, perhaps up to 10 days before the election, so that counties have more time to count. Ugenti-Rita said she’s open to such an amendment.

Representatives of Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, both Democrats, voiced their offices’ opposition to the bill. But one of the most strident voices against SB1046 came from a Republican election official.

Yavapai County Recorder Leslie Hoffman said she doesn’t believe SB1046 will make vote-counts faster, except possibly by virtue of reducing voter turnout. She touted Yavapai County, a Republican stronghold, as having the highest percentage of voting-by-mail in the state, and urged the committee not to take away an option that many voters use.

“Please don’t take that away from me, my county, my taxpayers,” Hoffman said.

Republican members of the committee pushed back against criticism that SB1046 would result in voter suppression.

“I think that’s what the sponsor’s trying to get back to, is the idea that if you want to vote by mail, we’re not stopping that. But vote by mail,” Farnsworth said. “The intent here is not to disenfranchise. It’s to get the system back to what originally was intended.”

Farnsworth said people who drop off their early ballots in person are actually making things less convenient because they have to drive to the polling place to drop it off. He noted that people who drop off early ballots don’t have to wait in line like other voters do. Ugenti-Rita said some simply want the “I voted” sticker they get at the polling places, or want the experience of going to the polling place in person while still using an early ballot.

Ugenti-Rita dismissed the county recorders’ criticism.

“This is a policy discussion. With all due respect to the recorders, certainly they have a lot of valuable expertise when you’re talking about the actual language,” she said. “But this is within our purview and our discretion, so for them to say it’s not a good piece of legislation or it’s disenfranchising voters, is really outside their scope.”

Ugenti-Rita told the Arizona Mirror after the hearing that she sponsored SB1046 in response to concerns she heard from constituents about the length of time it takes to count ballots, and said people want more timely results.

The committee on Thursday passed two other Ugenti-Rita bills related to elections. Senate Bill 1072, which would require people who vote early at polling places and voting centers to provide photo identification, as other in-person voters do. Currently, people who cast early ballots in person must only sign a ballot envelope, and election officials check their signatures against a database to verify their identity, which is the same process used for mailed ballots. The committee passed SB1072 4-3 on a party-line vote.

Ugenti-Rita said she is trying to create uniformity in voter identification requirements.

Another of Ugenti-Rita’s proposals, Senate Bill 1054, passed unanimously. The bill would give counties a mandatory five business days after an election to verify the signatures on early ballots, a process known as “curing,” if the signatures are illegible, don’t match voters’ signatures that are on file, or are otherwise questionable.

Critics who opposed Ugenti-Rita’s other bills in the Senate Judiciary Committee praised her for SB1054. Several speakers told the committee that such a change is necessary because some voters’ signatures change over time, or temporarily as a result of injuries, prescription drugs or other issues.

“It’s a positive step toward allowing all voters to be heard,” Knox said.

Counties reach out to voters to verify questionable signatures on ballots that are received prior to Election Day. But until November, most didn’t do so for ballots received on the day of the election. All 15 counties agreed to cure such ballots after Election Day in a settlement of a lawsuit brought by several county GOP organizations.

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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.”