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Advocacy groups boycott Senate hearing on election legislation

When the Senate Government Committee met for the first time on Monday to debate 11 bills that would reshape Arizona’s elections, some familiar faces were missing from the room.

Twelve advocacy groups, from the Arizona Faith Network to Mi Familia Vota, announced earlier that morning they would boycott the legislative panel. In a joint statement, they criticized a decision by Senate GOP leaders to eliminate options to testify virtually and said that Mesa Republican Sen. Kelly Townsend was ill-fit to moderate a healthy debate over the bills’ merits.

“Chairwoman Townsend has also positioned herself as one of the front-liners in spreading lies and election conspiracy theories to garner support for legislation that intends to sabotage future elections and silence Arizona voters,” the statement read.

The partisan makeup of the committee has shifted since 2021, when it was chaired by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican running to be Arizona’s next secretary of state. Ugenti-Rita has made elections a focus of her legislative career, but  not in a manner that’s satisfied former President Donald Trump’s fiercest supporters.

Townsend, on the other hand, appears to have the backing of Trump, who praised her at a recent rally in Florence as one of several candidates who’ve pushed claims of election fraud.

“I think this committee was set up and designed to let these bills get out of committee. And these bills will get out of committee, I'm relatively sure,” said Alex Gulotta, the Arizona state director of All Voting Is Local. “And I don't think being there for whatever circus occurs today helps in any way to stop these bad bills.”

Most of those who showed up to testify on Monday afternoon did favor bills to add watermarks and holographic foil to ballots, ban cities and school districts from conducting their now-customary all-mail elections, and expand the margin of victory required to avoid an automatic recount.

Many also repeated  debunked conspiracies about sharpies and Maricopa County election procedures, boasted of their participation in the partisan election review Senate Republicans ordered in Maricopa County, or both.

Rather than participate in the committee, the 12 boycotting organizations will instead focus on one-on-one lobbying of moderate lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — urging them to oppose various election bills at other steps in the legislative process, Gulotta said.

“We'll be talking to the community and the people in the community about these bills,” he said. “But we're not going to be in this particular committee, because we don't think we're going to make any progress with reasonable conversation.”

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Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.