Senate passes bill adding new steps to vote by mail

By: - March 8, 2021 7:27 pm
early ballot

Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

Voting by mail would become more complicated for millions of Arizonans under a proposal approved by the Arizona Senate, which Democrats decried as voter suppression. Republicans meanwhile defended the measure as a safeguard to ensure voters’ identities, though documented instances of fraud are exceedingly rare.

Currently, voters must only sign the return envelope they use to return their early ballots and write their phone number. Election officials who have undergone training in signature verification compare voters’ signatures to the ones they have on file to confirm their identities. 

Last year, almost three in four ballots — about 2.5 million — were cast early in Arizona. In Maricopa County, nearly 92% of voters used an early ballot.

Senate Bill 1713, which the Senate passed Monday on a party-line 16-14 vote, would add new steps for people to cast an early ballot. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, would require voters to include proof of identification to the affidavit they sign, which would go inside the return envelope. 

Voters could include the number from their driver’s license, state ID or tribal identification card, or any other form of identification issued by federal, state or local governments. Or they could also write their voter identification number, along with another item that shows the voter’s address, such as a copy of a utility bill, bank statement, insurance card or vehicle registration. Counties would be required to send every voter a new voter identification card every two years.

The vote on SB1713 came amid a roiling debate at the Capitol over a slew of election bills that Republican lawmakers have introduced this year that will make it more difficult for people to cast ballots. The debate in the Senate grew heated at times as Democrats argued that the bill will make it harder for many people to vote, particularly low-income voters and people of color. 

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“I’ve been giving a little leeway here because I know this has been a long time coming, and I know people have things to get off their chests,” Senate President Karen Fann told the chamber.

The debate over SB1713 followed a vote on another election bill in which Democrats and Republicans traded barbs over whether the legislation was racist and disproportionately affected people of color. Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said he believes his Republican colleagues have the best of intentions. But the Senate has heard plenty of testimony about who will be most affected by the bill, he said, and those intentions don’t change the effects of the legislation.

“You should be held accountable for that, and you are still at fault for that. And you should not be excused because you chose not to consider the impacts of your policy proposals,” Quezada said. “This bill hurts people from all districts of color and low-income voters.”

Some Democrats noted that many voters, especially low-income people, don’t have printers, which would make things difficult if they have to copy documents or identification. Others bemoaned the extra steps voters will have to take to ensure their ballots are counted.

Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, said many people don’t have driver’s licenses, including young voters, retirees and people with low incomes. And some voters may simply lose the extra piece of paper that would come in the form of the internal affidavit, he said.

“This is inevitably going to lead to some votes not getting counted. It could be dozens. It could be hundreds. It could be thousands. It could be more,” Bowie said.

Jennifer Marson, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of Counties, told the Senate Government Committee last month that Yuma County used to use a similar system with two pieces of paper, but ultimately abandoned it because many voters forgot to include both.

Mesnard said he wants people to have as much voting access as possible. But there must be ways to verify people’s identities. 

When people go to the polls in person, an election worker simply checks their identification. That’s not possible with mail-in ballots, he said.

Mesnard said there’s a lot of doubt among voters regarding the efficacy of the current system for verifying the identity of mail-in voters, and his legislation would strengthen that verification system.

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“We’re extending you a convenience, allowing you to vote from home. But we need to validate your identification. We need to validate that you are you, because it is offensive to people if the integrity of the election system is shot. If they don’t believe the result, why will they go and vote?” Mesnard said.

One Republican raised concerns with the bill, though he ultimately voted for it. In addition to new complications the bill would create, Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, said he worried that putting the affidavit inside the ballot return envelope would put election workers in a position where they would be able to see who a person voted for while checking the affidavit that determines whether their ballot will count. That would trade a forgery risk with privacy concerns, he said.

“Fundamentally, I agree that there needs to be some way to improve the process in which we return these ballots,” Pace said. “The problem is, every single way you look at it, it’s cumbersome.”

Pace also questioned the provisions that would require people to make copies of documents, noting that he recently purchased a printer for the first time in his life. But Pace said Mesnard had agreed to look for ways to amend the bill in the House of Representatives, and he voted in favor of SB1713 while reserving the right to vote against it if an amended version comes back to the Senate. If the House doesn’t amend the bill — Mesnard said that’s his plan — the Senate won’t get another chance to vote on it.

Mesnard said the provision requiring voters’ affidavits to be inside the envelope was driven by privacy concerns. He said he voted by mail for the first time last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was surprised that his signature and phone number went on the outside of the envelope, where anyone can see it.

The overwhelming majority of Arizonans vote by early ballot, and election officials defend the system as secure. Gov. Doug Ducey, too, has long defended Arizona’s election system as making it “easy to vote and hard to cheat.” Election officials in Arizona and in other states where most or all votes are cast by mail, such as Utah and Washington, say instances of fraud are rare

Despite few documented cases of fraud, Arizona has seen a wave of proposed legislation aimed at curbing election fraud in the wake of conspiracy theories and baseless allegations that have proliferated in GOP circles since Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Several dozen lawsuits in five states, including Arizona, have failed to show any evidence of fraud, and Trump and his supporters have been unable to provide anything to support their allegations in court.

The Arizona Association of Counties, which represents election officials in all 15 counties, opposes the bill, as do several individual county recorders.

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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.”