Ducey signs bill to remove inactive voters from early ballot list




early ballot
Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

The Permanent Early Voting List is no longer permanent.

On Tuesday, Gov. Doug Ducey signed Senate Bill 1485, which will allow voters who are signed up to automatically receive early ballots for every election to be removed from the list if they don’t use those ballots at least over the course of two consecutive election cycles. Proponents of the bill touted it as an election integrity measure, while opponents castigated it as a voter suppression measure that will make it harder for some voters to cast ballots.

Arizona established its Permanent Early Voting List in 2007. Voters who sign up for the list automatically receive early ballots for every election in which they’re eligible to vote. About 3.2 million of Arizona’s 4.3 million registered voters are on the PEVL.

Now, the PEVL will be rechristened as the Active Early Voting List. Voters who don’t use their early ballots in at least one general, primary or municipal election over a four-year period will receive a notice in the mail asking if they want to remain on the list. Anyone who doesn’t respond affirmatively within 90 days is removed from the list.

Ducey called the bill a simple matter of “election integrity” that will ensure that early voting lists remain accurate. He emphasized that voters who are removed from the early voting list will still be registered to vote and can still request early ballots. And the removal of the inactive voters from the list will free up county recorders, most of whom opposed SB1485, to focus their resources on things like voter education and election security.

“Let’s be clear — despite all the deceptive and heated rhetoric being used by some partisan activists to lobby against this reform, not a single Arizona voter will lose their right to vote as a result of this new law,” Ducey said in a video he released to announce his signing of SB1485.

Ducey has frequently boasted that Arizona makes it “easy to vote and hard to cheat,” even touting the state’s election system last year to former President Donald Trump, who would later falsely allege that the presidential election in Arizona was rigged. The governor rejected arguments that his support for the election system should preclude him from supporting changes to it.

“That’s ridiculous. If prior leaders had taken that approach, none of the improvements to our election system over the last three decades would have been enacted,” he said.

The governor signed the bill barely an hour after the Senate approved it on a party-line, 16-14 vote. 

Senate Democrats excoriated the bill as they voted, calling it a voter suppression measure and alleging that the brunt would be borne largely by low-income, minority, rural and Native American voters.

Sen. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, said SB1485 punishes infrequent voters. Yes, she said, people who are removed from the early voting list can still vote and can still get back on the list. But they’ll have to jump through more hurdles to do so.

“Unquestionably the impact of this bill will be to take away, make it more difficult, have a lower turnout by those more occasional voters. And many of those will be people of color and those of low income,” Engel said.

Other Democrats accused their Republican colleagues of intentionally trying to dissuade certain voters who tend to favor the Democratic Party from casting ballots. 

While Republicans branded SB1485 as a way to combat voting fraud, Democratic lawmakers pointed out that there’s little evidence that fraud committed via early ballots has ever been a problem. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office has not prosecuted such a case for at least a decade.

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, emphasized that there’s no evidence that the PEVL has fostered election fraud, and questioned why Republican lawmakers are passing such restrictions at a time when Democrats have made gains in the historically conservative state.

“Making it harder to vote is voter suppression. It doesn’t have to be a poll tax,” Mendez said. “You’re not trying to stop fraud. You’re trying to pick and choose who gets to vote conveniently.”

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who sponsored SB1485, touted the bill as a fraud prevention measure.

“Standing with the voters and their desire for secure elections is paramount to maintaining our form of government. This bill is a modest, but critical step toward restoring confidence in our election system,” Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican, said in a press release from the governor.

Estimates for how many voters SB1485 would affect varied. Senate Democrats alleged more than 120,000 voters could be purged from the early voting list. Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ office said it could be as many as 200,000. And Democratic strategist Sam Almy estimated it could be about 216,000.

However, determining how many voters could be removed from the early voting list may be impossible until 2025. According to the Legislative Council, the bill isn’t retroactive, meaning voters won’t be eligible for removal unless they fail to use their early ballots in the next two election cycles.

SB1485 appeared poised for easy passage in the Senate after the House of Representatives amended it, but fell short by one vote when Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, switched her previous position and voted against it. She said at the time that she wanted to wait until a controversial audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County that Senate President Karen Fann ordered was completed, and wanted to ensure that the legislature is still in session when the audit concludes so that lawmakers can address any issues that come up.

On Tuesday, Townsend said SB1485 the bill will boost confidence in Arizona’s elections and said it will remedy issues with the PEVL, though it’s unclear what issues she was referring to. Early voting has been the focus of many of the unfounded conspiracy theories and baseless accusations surrounding the 2020 election, but no actual problems have come to the fore. 

Townsend said she wishes the bill was retroactive, and lamented that it will take several years before it will bear fruit. But she said it’s an important step nonetheless.

She also said she’s been reassured that she can vote for SB1485 in the knowledge that the legislature will look at other issues that need to be fixed in time for the 2022 election.

“So I do feel confident going forward in good faith voting yes on this that we will also be addressing other issues this session,” Townsend said.

Ducey signed SB1485 before Democrats could mobilize their efforts to pressure him to veto the bill. Some Democrats were hoping to rally the business community in opposition, much as happened in Georgia after Gov. Brain Kemp signed a law that imposed several new voting restrictions, which prompted Major League Baseball to withdraw the All-Star Game from Atlanta. 

Shortly after Tuesday’s vote, House Minority Leader Reggie Bolding, D-Phoenix, sent a letter to National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, asking him to urge Ducey to veto SB1485. He noted that Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill was a signatory to a letter last month urging lawmakers to reject the early voting bill, and questioned whether the NFL could pull the 2023 Super Bowl from Arizona, as it did after voters in 1990 rejected a proposed Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

“This bill is reprehensible and stands in direct opposition to my, and the NFL’s commitment to the fundamental right to vote,” Bolding wrote.

In his video on Tuesday, Ducey cautioned big businesses against getting involved.

“For reasons I don’t fully understand, elsewhere in America, large corporations have decided to insert themselves into the debate over election law. My advice to them regarding this law is simple — know what you’re talking about before you say anything,” the governor said. “These big businesses have seemed to embrace a static view of elections. Freeze the systems the way they are and view any change suspiciously. It’s wrong. Dead wrong.”

Jeremy Duda
Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. 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.”