GOP lawmaker kills early voting bill, says audit results should come first




The floor of Veterans Memorial Coliseum on April 22, 2021, the day before the Senate's audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County was set to begin. Screenshot via AzAudit.org

A Republican bill that would have removed up to an estimated 200,000 voters from the list of people who automatically receive mail-in ballots is dead, and the GOP senator who dealt the fatal blow said she did it because she wants to wait until after the Senate completes its big election audit.

After weeks of deadlock, Senate Bill 1485 appeared destined for Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk. An amendment paved the way for its delayed passage in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, and all that remained was for the Senate to approve it for a second time.

However, Sen. Kelly Townsend, who had already voted for the bill twice — once on the Senate floor and once in the appropriations committee — switched to a “no” vote. Republicans hold only a 16-14 majority in the Senate, and Democrats unanimously opposed the bill, so they couldn’t afford to lose a single vote.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the bill’s sponsor, accused Townsend of switching her vote for strictly retaliatory purposes. Ugenti-Rita chairs the Senate Government Committee, and would not give a hearing to several of Townsend’s election related bills. 

“Obviously, this bill isn’t going to pass because the member from District 16, in a show of spite and in a rage, has decided to vote against it. It’s disappointing that someone who purports to care about election integrity, who purports to care about the voters, is deciding to kill a very important election bill,” Ugenti-Rita said. “It’s unfortunate to be on the receiving end of someone’s temper tantrum.”

Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican, said Townsend told her personally that she would vote against the bill because of her legislation that died in the government committee. Townsend, R-Mesa, said that’s not the case.

Rather, Townsend said her vote was due to the Senate’s audit and hand recount of the 2020 general election in Maricopa County, which will begin in earnest on Friday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum

After GOP lawmakers and activists made baseless claims that Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 election through fraud, Senate President Karen Fann ordered an audit of the election. She and others involved in the audit have stated that the findings will help lawmakers determine whether legislation is needed to fix problems with Arizona’s election system. Fann told the Arizona Mirror on Wednesday that one of the issues the audit will look into is whether people are receiving early ballots that they shouldn’t be getting.

Townsend, a vocal supporter of the controversial audit, said on Thursday that she supports Ugenti-Rita’s bill and is an advocate for election integrity. And she acknowledged that she’s mad about her bills. But she said the Senate should wait to see the results before they make any changes to the state’s election laws.

“It is incumbent upon us to be patient and to wait and to look and see what this audit produces. Otherwise, we’re doing it for no reason. It’s for show. It’s for replying to our constituents that, ‘Yes, we’re doing an audit, but if we happen to find irregularities or problems, well, you’ll have to wait until 2024 for that fix,’” Townsend said.

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The Senate expects the audit to conclude by May 14, and the auditors’ final report is expected to be available about 12 days afterward. 

Townsend suggested that the legislature shouldn’t adjourn for the year until the audit results are available so that lawmakers will be able to address any issues before next year. If the legislature is still in session in late May when the audit’s findings become public, lawmakers could revive SB1485 at that time. Ugenti-Rita voted against the bill when it became clear it would fail, which gives her the option of calling for one more vote. 

The audit timeline makes it highly unlikely that lawmakers will have the opportunity to propose other legislation based on the audit’s results this year.

Townsend acknowledged that any election law changes that pass next year without the Democratic support they’ll need to go into effect immediately — a two-thirds supermajority is required for immediate enactment, while other legislation goes into effect 90 days after the session ends — meaning it won’t be in effect until at least after the primary election.

“We have a problem in Arizona with our elections, evidenced by the fact that, as we speak, we’re having an audit,” Townsend said.

In a Facebook post on her official senatorial account on Tuesday, Townsend wrote, “How serious are we really when we call for election integrity? I had multiple good and necessary election reform bills. All of them dead.” The bill showed a whiteboard with several lists of legislation, one of which was titled, “Killed by Ugenti-Rita,” which included a number of Townsend’s election bills.

Townsend has since deleted the post. Writing on Twitter after the vote, she disputed Ugenti-Rita’s claim that Townsend told her she would vote against SB1485 because of the death of her bills.

“I never told her it was to spite her. I told her it was hard to watch her talk about election integrity in her press conference after killing all my bills. Nevertheless that is not why I voted no and they knew it,” Townsend tweeted, referring to a press conference Ugenti-Rita held on Monday to rally support for SB1485.

Under the current law, Arizonans who sign up for the state’s Permanent Early Voting List automatically receive a ballot in the mail for every election in which they’re entitled to vote. Ugenti-Rita’s proposal would remove the “permanent” part of the list, changing the law so that voters who don’t use their early ballots for two consecutive election cycles receive a notice in the mail asking if they want to remain on the PEVL, as it’s known. Anyone who doesn’t respond affirmatively is purged from the list.

For the past week, Democratic politicians and progressive organizations have mobilized en masse against SB1485, alleging it’s true intent is voter suppression. During nearly three hours of impassioned speeches in the House on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers accused their Republican counterparts of intentionally targeting minority voters who tend to vote for Democrats.

Some members of the business community expressed vocal opposition to the bill in response to the furor over a new Georgia law that restricts voting rights in some aspects. Activists have called for boycotts of the state, and Major League Baseball pulled the upcoming All-Star Game from Atlanta. Some Democrats have suggested that Arizona could also face similar consequences, invoking the loss of the 1993 Super Bowl after voters rejected a proposed Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

According to an analysis by Democratic strategist Sam Almy, SB1485 would affect about 216,000 voters who are on the PEVL but didn’t vote in 2018 or 2020. Of those, more than 47 percent are independents, while 30 percent are Democrats and about 22 percent are Republicans.

Townsend’s stated refusal to vote for election law changes until after the audit’s completion doesn’t bode well for another bill that is still alive in the legislative process. Senate Bill 1713 would add a new voter identification requirement for early voting. Voters must currently put their signature on their early ballot envelopes, which election officials use to verify their identities. SB1713 would mandate that they also include either a driver’s license, state ID or voter registration number, along with their date of birth.

Ducey traditionally does not comment on legislation that he hasn’t acted on. But he’s indicated that he’d be willing to sign at least some of the election bills that were still alive in the legislative process.