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Party line votes define election law proposals, with vetoes looming

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Party line votes define election law proposals, with vetoes looming

Feb 26, 2024 | 9:14 am ET
By Caitlin Sievers
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Party line votes define election law proposals, with vetoes looming
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Photo by Ralph Freso | Getty Images

Republicans lawmakers last week approved a bevy of bills that would make sweeping changes to Arizona elections, but all are likely to die at the hands of Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who holds the power of veto and showed last year that she was not afraid to use it. 

With votes along party lines, Republicans in the state Senate voted to pass proposals that would throw out the results of bond elections if less than 60% of voters cast a ballot and would require a return to precinct-based voting, as well as close all public schools on Election Day. 

Meanwhile, Republicans in the House passed legislation that would make it easier for people like failed gubernatorial candidate-turned U.S. Senate hopeful Kari Lake to challenge election results in court. They also voted in favor of a bill that would ban the use of artificial intelligence in tabulators and signature verification software, something that elections officials say they don’t use. 

Democrats and Republicans already worked together and came to a compromise on an election reform bill — which Hobbs signed Feb. 9 —  to avoid an election timeline issue that threatened to disenfranchise voters. But legislators from both sides of the aisle were under intense pressure from the county officials who run elections to remedy the issue that threatened to leave overseas voters — including those in the military — at risk of not receiving their ballots in time to vote and could have left Arizona without a voice in the presidential election. 

Now that the pressure from the counties has subsided, legislators are back to partisan voting when it comes to proposed election reform legislation. 

The Senate on Feb. 21 voted 16-13 along party lines to pass Senate Bill 1286, sponsored by the head of the far-right Arizona Freedom Caucus, Jake Hoffman, and with the backing of several of the group’s members. The Queen Creek Republican’s proposal would require public and charter schools to close to students on Election Day and would require school buildings to be available as polling locations, if requested by election officers, but would also prohibit teachers from taking that day off. 

Additionally, the proposal would force counties that use a voting center model, in which there are fewer voting locations but any registered voter can cast a ballot at any of them, to return to a precinct model. That offers more voting locations, but voters can only cast a ballot at a single designated location. Those that try to vote at other locations would have their ballots discarded. Counties could still use vote centers, if the proposal becomes law, but only in addition to precincts, not to replace them. 

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, told lawmakers that she had many concerns about the bill before voting against it, including that it puts a burden on counties to find and hire more election workers for each precinct — which is already a challenge — and that fewer votes would be counted because more voters will inevitably cast their ballot at the wrong precinct location. She added that county election officials, as a group, asked the lawmakers to vote against the bill. 

“There will be voter confusion,” Sundareshan said. “People will show up at their one precinct-based polling location and cast a ballot, not realizing that their ballot will not be able to be counted.”

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who sponsored a similar bill last year, said that requiring the use of precincts, with voting centers as an additional option, would increase voter access instead of stifling it. 

He pointed to printer problems in Maricopa County’s 2022 general elections as evidence that using only voting centers actually decreased voter access. 

“How about when the printers stop working in the middle of an election? You can blame whomever you want, but you certainly cannot call that ‘voter access,’” Mesnard said. 

Another Freedom Caucus member, Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, called the bill brilliant, claiming that she knew of people who didn’t get to vote in the 2022 general election because of ballot printer issues in Maricopa County. She said she was on a radio show when calls came in from voters who didn’t get to cast a ballot. 

“That was the ultimate voter suppression that happened, live on the radio,” Wadsack said. 

Maricopa County maintains that every legal vote cast in the 2022 election was counted, whether or not the tabulator at the voter’s polling place rejected the ballot. 

None of the multiple election challenges that the Republican candidates who lost their bids for statewide office brought to court were able to prove voter disenfranchisement, with a judge calling the alleged proof that Kari Lake offered in court “speculation or conjecture.” 

“We need to return to common sense in our elections, and when the voting centers came in, it removed all the common sense,” Wadsack said. “It removed the ease of voting. I’m ecstatic about this bill.” 

Also this week, the Senate approved by a vote of 16-13 Senate Bill 1360, which would ban the use of artificial intelligence in software used in Arizona tabulators, for ballot processing and in signature verification. 

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Frank Carroll, R-Sun City West, explained that the bill is the same as one that Hobbs vetoed last year and is based on unverified claims from unnamed witnesses who said artificial intelligence was used in ballot adjudication in past elections. 

“If it (the software) picks up on patterns, how do we know that the voter intent is being honored?” he said during a Feb. 5 Senate Elections Committee meeting. 

Arizona’s counties support the bill, because none of them currently use artificial intelligence, said Jen Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, during the Feb. 5 meeting. 

“Hopefully, we can persuade the 9th floor to understand why this is significant,” Carroll said. 

In the other chamber 

On Feb. 22, the House voted 31-28, along party lines, to pass House Bill 2851, which would create more rigid requirements for documenting the chain of custody when moving ballots from polling places to another location to count them.  

Democratic Rep. Laura Terech, of Phoenix, pointed out that most county election officials are against this proposal, which does not provide funding for counties to set up live video feeds of early ballot signature verification stations as the bill requires, or to pay for storage of the video. 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa, told lawmakers on Feb. 21 that he was committed to making an amendment to get the counties on board with the bill, but it passed through the House the next day without one. 

On Feb. 22, the House voted 31-28 along party lines to pass House Bill 2719, which would require that bond elections happen only in even-numbered years and would invalidate those elections if less than 60% of registered voters turn out for the election. 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael Carbone, R-Buckeye, said the intent of the bill was to ensure that more voters have a say in raising taxes, but it would actually give the voters who stay home the power of veto. 

Before voting against the bill Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, said it was an attempt to limit funding options available to public schools, adding that it was bad for families, children, communities and the economy. Schwiebert is a former teacher. 

Each of the bills that passed through one chamber of Arizona’s legislature will next be sent to the other chamber for consideration.