Republican lawmakers in Arizona worried about potential voter fraud have introduced a host of bills that will make it harder to vote.

The bills would potentially have a wide range of effects and come in the wake of Republican claims of widespread voter fraud in the last election, which have been repeatedly rejected in court.

Moreover, the bills would crack down on the state’s long-standing populist embrace of voter-approved initiatives and constitutional amendments, like the just enacted proposition that would raise $1 billion for schools annually by imposing a big state income tax increase on people making more than $250,000 annually.

Most of the elections bills now moving through the legislature would make it harder to get on or stay on the state’s popular early voting rolls.

Lawmakers in 2007 created a system that allowed voters to sign up for the “permanent early voter list.” They then would receive mail-in ballots in every election until they asked to be removed or their registration became inactive because mail was returned as undeliverable.

In November, 2.8 million of the state’s 3.3 million votes were early ballots. Historically in Arizona, Republicans have been more likely to use the early voting system. But this year Democrats nearly caught up. In November, Republicans accounted for 38% of the early ballots compared to 35% for Democrats.

Elsewhere in the nation, Democrats have historically relied more heavily on mail-in ballots.

The Brennen Center tracks laws affecting voting nationwide and reports that across the nation Republicans have introduced more than 100 bills restricting systems for registering voters and shifting to mail-in voting. Democrats have introduced a similar number of bills seeking to loosen requirements for registering and mail-in voting.

In Arizona, one new bill (SB 1069), would purge from the “permanent” mail-in voter rolls the names of anyone who does not vote by mail in two primary and general elections in a row. Bill sponsor Michelle Ugenti-Rita said the bill’s a “housekeeping” measure that would save counties the expense for repeatedly mailing out ballots to people who don’t use them. Democrats on the Senate Government Committee argued the new rules would require counties to purge hundreds of thousands of voters from voter rolls and decrease turnout.

Another new bill introduced by Rep. Kevin Payne (R-Peoria) would require voters to sign the envelop of their mail-in ballot in front of a notary. A fervent supporter of the unverified claims of widespread voter fraud in the last election, Payne said the extra step would prevent people from sending in fraudulent ballots with fake signatures. Democrats on the Senate Government Committee countered that eight legal challenges had yielded no evidence of voter fraud based on fake signatures on mail-in ballots. Each county’s recorder office verifies by hand the signatures on the outside of mail-in ballots.

Another bill introduced by Payne would abolish the permanent mail-in voting list altogether. Many other states do not have a standing mail-in ballot voter list, but the system in Arizona has proven popular. Ballot audits have so far turned up no evidence of significant problems with the current system.

Yet another (SB 1358) would prevent counties from setting up any voter registration effort outside of government buildings. The bill passed through the Senate Government Committee on a straight, 5-3 party-line vote.

Backers of the bills say they would crack down on voter fraud and save counties the cost of mailing out ballots to voters on the early voting list who have not in the past several years voted by mail.

Opponents say the bills represent an effort to reduce voter turnout after a record-breaking turnout election in which four out of five voters relied on mail-in ballots. Although Republicans retained their control of both state legislative houses in the face of record statewide turnout, they narrowly lost the presidential race and a U.S. Senate race for the first time in decades.

The Republican legislature has imposed restrictions on voting in the past, including a controversial ban on “ballot harvesting.” Many groups had previously gone door to door to register voters, urge people to sign up for early voting and sometimes bundle up signed, sealed ballots to turn in at the polls. Critics said this introduced the potential for fraud, although few cases of such fraud have been documented.

The new restrictions on voting mirror bills in previous sessions which never became law.

Gov. Doug Ducey has staunchly defended the state’s voting regulations and certified the results of the past election, after recounts in several counties and eight court challenges turned up no evidence of fraud or widespread miscounting.

In a series of tweets after the election, Ducey defended the state’s system, which makes much greater use of mail-in balloting than most other states.

“In Arizona, we have some of the strongest election laws in the country, laws that prioritize accountability and clearly lay out procedures for conducting, canvassing, and even contesting the results of an election.”

Those safeguards include checking voter ID at the polls, the review of signatures on every mail-in ballot, prohibitions on ballot harvesting, bipartisan poll observers, clear deadlines and a ban on counting mail-in ballots received after Election Day.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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