Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Arizona HB 2305 election law reforms common sense and necessary

Since 1845, elections for President and Congress have occurred on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Most states, including Arizona, also hold their statewide elections at the same time.

For most of the past 170 years, we’ve become accustomed to knowing on the Wednesday after the first Monday in November who won the election held the day before.

That’s no longer the custom in Arizona. Since 2006, election day has turned into election half-month thanks to the ignorance and inattention of hundreds of thousands of Arizona voters.

A law, HB2305, passed by the Legislature during the hot-tempered days of the Medicaid expansion vote, seeks to change Arizona back to a state that knows who won its elections the next day.

Opponents of the law, mostly Democrats, are calling it Republican voter suppression because they think it will make it harder for poor people to vote. They’re wrong.

Nearly half of Arizonans who cast ballots in major elections do so by the so-called early ballot, allowing for votes to be cast up to 30 days before the election. The early voting law was intended to aid invalids and other people who for various reasons can’t make it to the polls on election day, but instead has turned it into a voting data boon for the two major political parties.

It was never intended for so many voters to get their ballots a month before the election. But early voting is crack for party hacks. It provides them reams of accurate data about which of their party’s members have voted or not, and greatly aids them with their get-out-the-vote efforts. Rather than spend thousands of dollars knocking on doors or calling voters who have already voted, party volunteers can focus their efforts on fence sitters, procrastinators and infrequent voters and get that ballot mailed. And for the party members who don’t have an early ballot, they can go knock on a door and get that voter to the poll on election day.

All voters can call their county election office and have an early ballot sent to them, but the political parties want voters to sign up for the permanent early ballot list so the voter is mailed a ballot automatically in every election.

The Democrat and Republican parties deluge voters not on the permanent early ballot lists with registration forms, pestering them to sign to up, often including independents who hold the balance of power in almost every state race. They want that data.

And more than a million Arizona voters have responded, signing up for the permanent list and casting early ballots in ever increasing numbers since the beginning of the last decade.

But hundreds of thousands of Arizona’s voters don’t seem to understand how it works. In the national and state election just past, the Wednesday after the election more than 631,000 ballots sat in county counting rooms waiting to be counted. That’s more than a quarter of all ballots cast in the election. About 430,000 of them were early ballots turned in on election day, either by a voter or by the mailman, completely defeating the purpose of having an early ballot. And about 170,000 were provisional ballots cast by voters who were on the voting rolls as having received an early ballot, but then showed up to the polls to cast a ballot anyway.

It took county election officials two weeks to verify and count them all, while several state and dozens of local races hung in the balance.

In 2010, it took about 10 days to count all the uncounted ballots and in 2008, another two weeks to count the uncounted.

That is a failed voting system that is ripe for a whole assortment of skullduggery.

The new law requires county election officials to send a postcard to voters on the permanent early ballot list if they haven’t cast their early ballot in four consecutive elections over two years. If the voter doesn’t respond to the postcard that they want to remain on the list, they’re removed.

This is needed reform, not voter suppression. The removed voters remains registered voters and they can still vote in any election, they just have to show up to the poll to do it, or call to get an early ballot, and perhaps get back on the permanent list.

Several election bills made the rounds of the Legislature during the recent session and none got across the finish line. But at the end of the session while all the legislators were mad at each other, the Republican leadership dumped all the election bills into this quasi elections omnibus bill and then twisted arms to pass it.

Other changes HB 2305 makes include changing the number of nominating petition signatures needed to get on the ballot for state and Congressional races, changes who the Secretary of State can forward election law violation complaints to if the suspected violator is the Attorney General, changes language about strict adherence to the election laws for ballot initiatives and recall petitions and changes the rules about collecting early ballots and turning them into elections officials.

All of the changes are reactions to recent problems and controversies in state elections.

• The previous law for signature requirements for legislative and Congressional races used to have different requirements for the amounts of signatures needed by a party to get on the ballot. Now the amount needed, a percentage of the voter turnout of a previous election, is the same for everyone seeking to get on the ballot.

The effect is that minor-party candidates need to get far more signatures and the Democrat and Republican candidates need to get fewer to get on the ballot. While that seems unfair, it’s a response to abuses by both parties in recent elections.

The allegation is that this is punishing minor parties for splitting the vote in close elections between Democrats and Republicans. While some legitimate Green and Libertarian party candidates have split the vote in close elections causing a candidate who normally would have won to lose, the incidence is rare.

The change is needed to stop sham candidates. The signature requirements for Green and Libertarians were so laughably low that party campaign zealots would use the ease of getting on the ballot to put up stalking horse candidates to siphon votes from their opponent.

This change makes it harder to put sham candidates on the ballot.

• The Secretary of State referral change is a reaction to Attorney General Tom Horne slithering off the hook for his alleged campaign abuses in 2010 because a judge ruled that state law says the AG is to investigate all campaign finances abuses and makes no exceptions if the alleged abuser happens to be the AG. That’s ridiculous. This law provides the exception.

• The change in who can collect an early ballot and turn it in is a solution in search of a problem; nevertheless, it suppresses no one’s vote.

As it stands now, anyone can pick up an early ballot from a voter and turn it in. Now, the voter and the collector must sign an affidavit that both agree to the transaction. This will certainly make the process of collecting unmailed early ballots on election day cumbersome, but that’s not suppression.

These voters asked to get an early ballot. If you get an early ballot, mail it in. That’s the deal. The fact that Democrats need legions of volunteers to scour poor communities, especially Latino communities, to collect thousands of unmailed early ballots speaks to a colossal failure of the early voting system that should be reformed.

This reform doesn’t fix that failure in fact but may in theory because it will force Democrats, and perhaps Republicans, to redouble their efforts to get voters to mail in their ballots rather than rely on someone coming by to pick it up.

• The final change is perhaps the pettiest, requiring strict adherence to the laws governing the technical aspects of recall and initiative petitions, and adding a bunch of new requirements governing the order petitions must be sorted, exactly where certain language must appear on petitions and so forth.

It’s a reaction to supporters of a sales tax increase extension initiative filing with the Secretary of State initiative ballot language on paper and electronically, but the paper version was wrong.

Opponents sued, saying only the paper version was legal but a judge said the correct language was turned in at the same time and the law required erring on the side of voter intent.

Now voter intent is irrelevant, it’s exactly what the law says about petition form that matters.

While that certainly will make it harder to get initiatives on the ballot, or to recall an elected official since strict adherence changes were made to those rules, harder is not a bad thing.

It should be difficult for the hoi polloi to change state law or recall elected officials. If it’s easy, it creates unstable government that changes with the whims of the electorate from year-to-year, decade-to-decade.

The electorate should only change the law – outside of legislation passed by representative government – rarely, and recall should be used only in cases of abuse and malfeasance.

Making it difficult by making the rules governing petitions persnickety is a lame way to go about it, but on the whole, it harms no one in the state.

If voters want to pass their own law, they still can. They just have to be very careful about their petitions.

All in all, the reforms of HB2305 are common sense and necessary.

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