Voting rights battle shifts to swing state Arizona

PHOENIX — A poorly handled presidential primary election and a hotly contested U.S. Senate race have kicked off a bitter battle over voting rights in an increasingly competitive state.

Republicans who control the state legislature have introduced a handful of measures to tighten election rules they say are routinely exploited, with the goal of streamlining procedures across Arizona’s 15 counties.

Democrats counter that the new rules amount to an assault on voting access, especially for minorities and the poor — voters who tend to back Democratic candidates.

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Among the most contentious measures is a bill that would outlaw paying someone based on the number of voters they register. Those who register voters could still be paid, but only on an hourly or salaried basis. That measure passed the state House in March on a party-line vote.

The state Senate is considering another controversial measure that would require anyone who receives a ballot by mail to return it through the Postal Service, rather than dropping it off at voting centers.

The ability to drop off mail ballots can lead to ballot-harvesting, said the bill’s lead sponsor, state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R).

Ugenti-Rita has also sponsored legislation to remove voters from the permanent vote by mail list if those voters do not cast a ballot for four straight years. Those voters would still be registered, but they would not receive their ballots in the mail.

Another of her bills would limit early voting at so-called emergency centers three days before an election.

A third bill, signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey (R), will require voters to show the same forms of identification at early voting sites as they would at the polling place on Election Day.

Ugenti-Rita, serving her first term in the Senate after four terms in the state House, said the measures are meant to boost confidence in Arizona’s election system.

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“We want to make sure we have an environment that breeds confidence and transparence,” Ugenti-Rita told The Hill. “If your foundation is weak and riddled with cracks and holes then what you build on top of it is going to be at risk.”

Democrats say the measures amount to a last-minute attempt by Republicans to keep the state in the GOP column ahead of the 2020 elections after four Democrats won statewide offices in the 2018 midterms.

“Our mission here this year is to make sure we protect democracy,” said state Rep. Raquel Teran (D), a member of the House Elections Committee. “This is not the first time we’ve seen these roadblocks.”

Voters in both parties were irate when Maricopa County, one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas, cut the number of polling places in the 2016 presidential primary from 200 to about 60, causing long lines. The county’s chief elections official, Helen Purcell, lost her reelection bid later that year.

Two years later, more than 60 precincts in Maricopa County did not open on time because equipment meant to check voters in had not been properly set up. Purcell’s successor, Adrian Fontes, blamed an IT contractor.

In November, it took days to count ballots in the tight race for a U.S. Senate seat between Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout On The Money: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency | Tech giants on defensive at antitrust hearing | Democrats ask Labor Department to investigate Amazon warehouses MORE. McSally led on Election Day, but Sinema closed the gap and won by a substantial margin.

The difficulties in handling so many new voters has bred distrust in the integrity of elections at exactly the moment Arizona is becoming a battleground state. President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE carried Arizona by just 3.5 percentage points, or about 90,000 votes, in 2016, the closest margin of victory since Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden campaign taps foreign policy vet Nicholas Burns as adviser: report Major health reform requires Democratic congressional dominance No presidential candidate can unite the country MORE carried Arizona by 2 points in 1996.

“The goal with my bills is to increase confidence for all voters, as both sides have diminished trust in the system,” said state Rep. Kelly Townsend (R), the author of several voting bills in the House. “It has been a good year, so far, advancing the integrity of the voting process and hopefully increasing the confidence of our voters.”

Democrats see the growing influence of Hispanic voters, along with younger voters moving into the state in search of technology jobs, as a critical building block on their path to winning the state. It is those voters, they say, who are being targeted by the GOP bills.

“There’s always a backlash when underrepresented constituencies flex their muscle at the ballot box,” said state Rep. Athena Salman (D), the House minority whip. “Let’s just say there’s a reason why Arizona was included in the original version of the Voting Rights Act.”

Arizona was one of 16 states that no longer has to comply with restrictions under the Voting Rights Act, a section of which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down.

It is also one of 10 states with a so-called strict voter identification law. Voters must show either a state- or tribal-issued identification card, federal identification or items like a recent utility bill or bank statement to prove their identity. If they do not have identification, they must prove their identity after voting by provisional ballot. States with less strict voter identification laws allow some voters to cast ballots after signing an affidavit attesting to their identity.