Election Reforms Bedevil Lawmakers

Legislature moves to repeal election reforms to thwart initiative

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What a mess.

The Arizona Legislature remains stuck to the tar baby of election law reform, with a bitter partisan divide, a voter initiative and an effort this session to repeal laws passed in the closing days of last year’s session.

Last year, Republicans pushed through a bundle of election reforms in House Bill 2305, despite objections from Democrats, Latino groups and other voting rights groups.

Some of the measures attempted to cope with the avalanche of late, mail-in ballots that have delayed election results for days. Others attempted to limit voter initiatives, which have caused headaches for lawmakers in recent years.

Critics of the measure quickly gathered more than 144,000 signatures to put on the ballot an initiative that would repeal the bundle of election reforms.

Alarmed, legislative Republicans this year introduced HB2196, to repeal last year’s reforms before the referendum does it for them.

Supporters of the repeal said they’re responding to the will of the voters.

Critics said the Republican backers of the bills wanted to outflank the voter initiative by repealing the bundle — and then reintroducing them piecemeal after the threat of the initiative passes.

The repeal measure, HB2196, passed through the House Judiciary Committee on a party line vote.

Mail-in ballots

Last year’s election bundle originated with the impact on elections of the growing use of mail-in ballots, which has led to a dramatic rise in provisional ballots. State law allows people to place themselves on a permanent list to receive mail-in ballots. If they neglect to mail the ballots, they can still bring the completed ballot to the polling place on Election Day. However, the poll workers must accept that ballot provisionally until election officials can check the signature on the outside of the envelop against the signature on the voter registration card. As a result, it takes days to count those provisional ballots — with the outcome of close races often hanging in the balance.

So one of the disputed reforms would drop people from the mail-in, early-ballot rolls if they don’t vote in two consecutive elections, retroactive to 2010. The voters purged from the early voting rolls could still vote by showing up at the polls.

In addition, the reforms would make it much harder and potentially risky to drop off someone’s signed, sealed, mail-in ballot at the polls.

A variety of voter registration and advocacy groups protested that change, as did mostly Democratic lawmakers representing Indian Reservations, where the mail-in ballots have proved popular. Most of the groups criticizing the shift have organized to register the rising number of Latino voters, whose voting rates are much lower than whites and who most often vote Democratic.

Restrictions on initiatives

Other election reforms included in the controversial bundle focused on voter initiatives, which have become increasingly important in driving state politics and policy.

Lawmakers have long complained that voter initiatives can prove expensive and inflexible. Lawmakers say voter-approved initiatives dictate roughly two-thirds of state spending. They maintain an initiative that made it much harder to change initiatives has created a budget straightjacket. For instance, lawmakers have faced legal challenges for setting aside one voter initiative that made impoverished childless adults eligible for the state’s medical insurance program for the poor. Lawmakers also set aside a voter initiative requiring them to give schools a budget increase to account for inflation, although a judge recently ruled that action violated state law.

The election reforms at issue among other things required that signature gathering for initiatives be in “strict compliance” with the rules rather than the “substantial compliance” that applies to signatures on things like candidates’ petitions. That standard has to do with the documentation submitted with petition lists necessary to put a measure or a candidate on the ballot.

Democrats and voting rights groups focused mostly on minority voters decried the changes as “voter suppression,” saying they would slow down the efforts to register low-income and minority voters.

A study by the PEW Research Center found that in 2012 only 48 percent of the eligible Latino voters actually voted. Latinos constituted 18 percent of the vote in 2012 and 30 percent of the population. Nonetheless, vigorous voter registration drives have increased the number of Latino voters in Arizona by 50 percent since 2004. About 74 percent voted for President Barack Obama, according to polls. The number of Latino voters in Arizona is expected to double by 2030, the report concluded.

However, supporters of the reforms say the dramatic rise in early ballots that end up as provisional ballots has hampered vote counting and support the need for ongoing reforms.

Several new measures addressing some of the same issues have already been introduced in the current session.

For instance, Rep. Paul Boyer has introduced HCR2018, which would require voters to go back to the polls to re-approve any initiative every eight years. Critics say that would cripple the initiative process. They say the Legislature can already put a ballot measure before the voters if it wants to repeal a previous initiative.

Rep. Steve Pierce (R-Prescott) introduced SB1344 to prevent the Citizen Clean Elections Commission from investigating complaints that candidates had violated state contribution limits, instead making the Secretary of State and the Attorney General’s office responsible.

One widely praised portion of the election law reform package the Legislature now seems intent on repealing would have allowed the Secretary of State to refer to a county attorney allegations of campaign finance violations by the state Attorney General.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne is currently defending himself against allegations that in 2010 he illegally coordinated his campaign with an independent group. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions has allowed independent groups to spend an unlimited amount of money in support of candidates and issues without disclosing the source of their funding so long as they don’t directly coordinate their campaigns with an individual candidate.

Horne has admitted he communicated with the group and urged them to raise an additional $100,000 from a national Republican group to attack his Democratic opponent. However, he said the law only prohibits talking about expenditures — not fund-raising.

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