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GOP senators want to change AZ voting laws. Elections officials say it will do more harm than good

Over the objections of local and state election officials, Republicans in the Arizona Senate Elections Committee advanced a plan to ask voters to make changes to the way elections are run in the state.

The new elections ballot referral would change the deadline for voters who want to return an early mail-in ballot in person. Under existing law, voters could return those ballots to a voting location by 7 p.m. Election Day. The ballot referral would change that deadline to 7 p.m. on the Friday before the election. 

The law would still allow those early voters to drop ballots through the day before the election, but only at the office of the county recorder if a county board of supervisors votes to designate that office as an emergency voting location.

Sen. Wendy Rogers (R-Flagstaff) said the measure, inspired by Florida vote counting laws, is needed to speed up vote counting in Arizona, where it can take weeks to count “late-early ballots” and to finalize results in exceedingly close statewide races.

“Florida manages to do this,” Rogers, who chairs the Elections Committee, said. “I want to make sure everybody understands that the goal here is accuracy, sanctity of the vote and timely reporting, timely reporting — not three weeks but five days.”

Sen. Brian Fernandez (D-Yuma) noted that one reason Florida races take less time to call is because it’s no longer considered a swing state like Arizona, which saw multiple statewide races decided by less than 1% in 2022.

Rogers said another measure, requiring a person dropping off an early ballot to show their ID to validate their identity — instead of having elections volunteers set the ballot aside to later go through the traditional signature verification process before it can be counted — will speed up the process without sacrificing election integrity.

Election officials say changes won't help, come with huge cost

But local and state election officials criticized the proposal, saying it would have the opposite effect. 

“So what we are seeing is that this would create longer lines, because we're having folks come and show their identification, as opposed to just dropping off a ballot affidavit in a box, usually at the front, people are going to have to stop and get in line,” Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly said.

Secretary of State Adrian Fontes also said the referral does not include enough funding to pay for other parts of the proposal, including language requiring counties to count all ballots on site at polling locations.

Rogers’ proposal includes a stipulation transferring $11 million from the Arizona Clean Elections Commission to the Secretary of State to distribute to counties to pay for the changes, but Fontes said that wouldn’t even cover the costs to buy new vote counting machines for the eight Arizona counties that currently count all ballots at a central location, not on site at polling centers.

Jen Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, estimated Coconino County, for example, would need $731,000 to comply with the law, well above the approximately $200,000 it would receive from the $11 million designated by the ballot referral. 

“So I don't think the [$11 million] is going to get us where we need to go,” Marson said, noting counties will also need to pay for additional maintenance, new software, larger voting locations, more staffing and training. 

Rogers accused critics of making excuses.

“And sometimes we have to do what's a little bit uncomfortable or a little bit out of our comfort zone to reassure that the processes are being done accurately and with precision and protecting the vote,” Rogers said.

But election officials argued the proposal could actually harm some voters.

Fontes said the bill would disproportionately affect voters in rural areas who may have to drive hours to reach a county’s single emergency voting location, which would be located in the county seat, if they don’t turn in their early ballot to a closer voting location by the Friday deadline.

“And I will always advocate against more restrictions that do not have data backing them and good reasons to support why the restrictions are necessary,” Fontes said.

Fontes also said language in the law requiring voters dropping off early ballots to show identification conflicts with existing law allowing family members and caregivers to drop off ballots for other members of their household, because it could be interpreted to require those non-present voters to present their identification.

Disagreements over interpretation

But Republican lawmakers defended the measure, accusing Fontes and Democrats on the committee of misinterpreting the language of the bill.

“I believe a person could drop off ballots from their caregiver and you don't have to drag the caregiver there with ID,” Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) said. He noted the new proposal would not repeal the existing state law allowing caregivers to drop off ballots for the people they care for. 

Fontes said those disagreements over interpretation are enough reason to press pause on the proposed legislation, saying there are simply too many unresolved issues and problems with ambiguous language.

“If we're putting something on the table for the voters that would create a conflict or potential conflict of law, that would create the real potential for litigation. … We just believe, respectfully, that this pie is not fully cooked,” Fontes said. 

The one thing that is clear, Fontes said, is “what we're doing is helping members of the election bar bill a lot of hours, because there's going to be lawsuits with such a lack of clarity.”

Even the proposal’s supporters agreed HCR 2056 needs more work.

“This is a work in progress,” Sen. Ken Bennett (R-Prescott) said before voting in favor of the measure.

But Republicans defended moving the measure forward anyway, saying it can be further amended when it reaches the Senate floor and goes before a full vote.

“This has been an exercise in clarification and demonstration of ideas,” Rogers said. “I would submit to you that it's been a healthy exchange.” 

The ballot referral would also ban committees in ballot measure elections from receiving contributions from foreign governments, and prohibit elections officials from using foreign money to fund election administration.

Cázares-Kelly, the Pima County recorder, called that a red herring.

“Election officers are not accepting foreign dollars, goods or services whatsoever,” she said. “That's not a thing.”

The Elections Committee approved the measure on 4-3 vote along party lines. HCR 2060 will go to voters for final approval if it passes final votes in the Arizona Senate and the Arizona House. 

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Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.