Arizona Republicans banded together Wednesday to narrowly approve a bill to create a “voter fraud hotline” at the state attorney general’s office, a move critics say will create fear among communities of new voters – particularly minorities – and seeks to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.
Debate around the measure on the floor of the House of Representatives was contentious, as the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, objected multiple times when her Democratic colleagues were speaking in opposition to the bill.
The measure, House Bill 2268, creates a hotline through which anyone can submit a complaint of election irregularities that they believe may have happened. The legislation also would allow attorney general’s office investigators to enter a polling place and authorizes a law enforcement officer to enter a polling place, voting center or counting center while they are in use in order to “investigate a criminal complaint.”
Townsend said the hotline and expanded law enforcement powers are needed to combat election fraud. At one point, she invoked reports that Russia and other foreign nations are attempting to meddle in American elections as justification for her bill.
“We hear nothing but claims of voter and election interference from overseas and within and that the chances of something happening are high, but here in Arizona, we should do nothing and leave it as it is. I find that interesting,” Townsend said when defending her bill.
Critics said that HB2268 will create chaos and fear among voters ahead of the general election.
“The general election is not the time to test out new procedures,” Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler said. “This is not the right time to roll out brand new procedures for a general election.”
“I have a fear that this could have a disparate impact on communities of color,” Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said, explaining that the presence of law enforcement at polling places could intimidate communities that are already fearful of police.
Townsend chafed at assertions that her bill could affect minority voters, and she sought to stop Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, from making similar comments. Blanc was “cautioned” to be careful not to impugn Townsend’s motives by Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who was leading the debate. Townsend made similar objections throughout the debate.
Wednesday’s debate came a week after Townsend clashed with Democrats and Latino voting rights advocates in the Elections Committee, which she leads. That hearing devolved into a shouting match after Townsend cut off testimony on a bill that proposes sweeping changes to election procedures because the person testifying mentioned how the bill would disproportionately affect Latino voters.
That bill, House Bill 2304, would ban voters from using a translator while voting unless they have a disability. The bill, which Townsend also introduced, allows the attorney general to contract with immigration officials, giving them access to voter rolls.
During Wednesday’s debate of HB2268, Townsend repeatedly argued that the bill seeks to prevent voter fraud. Townsend in the past has spread unfounded allegations of voter fraud.
In 2018, following Democratic victories in the U.S. Senate, secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction races, Arizona Republicans made baseless allegations of voter fraud.
Conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation found 20 cases of voter fraud in Arizona from 2009 to 2016. The vast majority of the cases dealt with duplicate voting, in which a person votes in more than one jurisdiction or state. Only two involved false registrations.
A 2019 Harvard study found that duplicate voting is likely not “carried out in a systematic way” and that in most cases, duplicate voting was likely the fault of the system and not the voter themselves.
“There is no voter fraud, bottom line,” Blanc said during discussion Tuesday night on the house floor.
Townsend countered that there would then be no harm to making her proposal law.
“If we are not committing voter fraud, then what are we worried about?” she said.
Townsend also took issue with how Democratic members felt about having the attorney general present at polling places.
“It is offensive to this state and to the position of the attorney general to say they are going to be coming in and harassing voters,” Townsend said, later adding that she thinks the bill “increases confidence” in voting.
Elections officials oppose HB2268. The Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office and the Arizona Association of Counties, which represents country recorders statewide, all have registered their opposition.
The bill passed 31-29, along party lines, and will next head to the Senate.