GOP bill that could remove 200k people from the Permanent Early Voting List clears the House

By: - April 21, 2021 8:39 am

Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

A bill that could remove tens of thousands of voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List is one step closer to Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk after a day of partisan rancor and procedural maneuvers in the Arizona House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 1485 had stalled out for weeks in the House of Representatives since passing out of committee on March 10, a timeframe that coincided with increased activism against legislation in Arizona, Georgia and elsewhere in the U.S. that Democrats castigated as voter suppression. Proposed changes by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the bill’s sponsor, helped break the logjam. 

Voters who sign up for the Permanent Early Voting List automatically receive a ballot for every election in which they’re eligible to vote. SB1485 would scrap the “permanent” part and change the law so that voters who are on the list but don’t cast an early ballot for two consecutive election cycles will receive a notification asking if they want to remain on the PEVL. If they don’t respond, they’re removed from the list.

The bill originally applied only to primary and general elections with state-level or federal races on the ballot. The House on Tuesday amended the bill to expand the list of elections that a PEVL voter can cast a ballot in to avoid being removed from the list to include municipal elections, as well.

The amendment also extends the amount of time voters have to respond to the notifications from 30 to 90 days, and changes the name of the non-permanent Early Voting List — which critics derided for the EVL acronym by pronouncing it “evil” — to the Active Early Voting List.

Ducey, who rarely comments on bills he hasn’t acted on, hasn’t said whether he’d be willing to sign Senate Bill 1485. But he has made a number of public comments saying he’s open to signing at least some of the election-related legislation working its way through the legislature.

GOP leadership in the Senate had planned to vote on the bill after the House passed it on Tuesday so it could go quickly to the governor’s office. But Ugenti-Rita said the Senate will now happen on Thursday due to delays in the House vote.

House Democrats left the chamber in a bid to push the vote on SB1485 to another day. Three Republican members were physically absent and attending the day’s proceedings remotely via Zoom, leaving the chamber without a quorum after House Democrats left. After several hours of delay, the three Republicans returned to the chamber, and the Democrats followed suit. That led House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, to cut off debate on the bill, angering Democrats, who responded with an unsuccessful procedural maneuver.

Democratic lawmakers opposed the bill in passionate terms, arguing that it would disproportionately affect voters who tend to support Democrats at the polls, including Latinos and African Americans.

“Let’s call it for what it is: This is an effort to make it harder for people of color to vote,” said Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, earning him a rebuke from Bowers.

House Minority Leader Reggie Bolding, D-Phoenix, backed up his colleague.

“He clearly stated what every reputable institution that follows elections and democracy in this country knows,” Bolding said. “When you make it more challenging by, say, removing an option that people use to participate in democracy, you make it harder for them to vote.”

Democratic lawmakers said the bill would be problematic for tribal and rural voters who may lack reliable internet service or have to travel long distances to vote in person. Others noted that independents who aren’t registered with a political party don’t automatically receive a ballot for primary elections even if they’re on the PEVL, and must instead tell election officials which party’s primary they want to vote in.

Others simply may not realize that they’re no longer on the early voting list until it’s too late to get an early ballot, and may lack the time or transportation they need to get to the polls to vote in person on Election Day, Democrats said. 

The Secretary of State’s Office estimates that between 150,000 and 200,000 could be removed from the early voting list if SB1485 becomes law. Sam Almy, a strategist with the Democratic campaign consulting firm Saguaro Strategies, concluded that it would purge about 216,000 voters who are on the PEVL. Nearly half of the voters affected would be independents, while 30 percent would be Democrats and 22 percent Republicans.

Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game from Atlanta after Georgia passed a wide-ranging law that restricts voting in some areas. Greater Phoenix Leadership, a business and civic organization, issued a statement signed by 40 business leaders in early April urging lawmakers to reject SB1485 and another election bill.

Rep. Athena Salman, R-Tempe, also warned that Arizona could face similar consequences as Georgia, such as losing the 2023 Super Bowl or the 2024 Final Four.

Ugenti-Rita has touted the bill as an effort to clean up the early voting list and eliminate the wasteful practice of sending thousands of ballots to voters who don’t actually use them. She’s emphasized that most other states, even some Democratic-controlled states, have more restrictive policies, a point House Republicans made on Tuesday.

Ugenti-Rita has been trying to pass similar legislation since 2019.

Arizona has long been a leader in voting by mail. The state enacted a law permitting no-excuse absentee voting in 1991, and established the PEVL in 2007. The overwhelming majority of Arizonans vote by early ballot. In 2020, more than 75% of all voters cast an early ballot; more than 90% did so in Maricopa County.

While Democratic lawmakers repeatedly accused their GOP counterparts of disenfranchising voters, Republicans emphasized that the bill doesn’t kick people off the voter rolls, or even automatically kick them off the early voting list. Voters will still be notified before their names are removed from the list and have an opportunity to remedy the situation.

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, raised the issue when Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, alleged that SB1485 would disenfranchise voters, noting that “disenfranchise” means to deprive someone of the right to vote.

“This bill does no such thing. It does not remove anyone from the voter rolls. And therefore it does not disenfranchise a single Arizonan,” Grantham said.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, noted that people will now have 90 days to respond to the notification that they’re going to be removed from the early voting list. And he said the inclusion of municipal races would lessen the impact on independents who don’t automatically receive ballots for primary elections.

“A number of changes were made to this bill to address some of the criticisms,” Kavanagh said.

The Arizona Association of Counties previously opposed SB1485, but switched its position to neutral early this month after it was amended to clarify that people would have to vote in at least one of four elections to stay on the early voting list, rather than all four. Jennifer Marson, the group’s executive director, said the association had no issues with Tuesday’s amendment. 

Another controversial election bill that Democrats have taken aim at is Senate Bill 1713, which would add new requirements for people who vote by mail. Voters currently must sign their names on their ballot envelopes, which election officials use to verify their identities. SB1713 would require them to include the date of birth and their driver’s license, state ID card or voter registration numbers.

Like SB1485, the bill has been stalled for weeks in the House. But unlike that bill, there’s no indication that it will come up for a vote. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said he’s hopeful it will get a vote in the House, but didn’t know when that might happen.

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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.”