Democrats want to nix Arizona’s early ballot collection prohibition

Prior to 2016, Arizonans could legally collect the early voting ballots of friends, family and community members to return them to be counted, and Democrats want to bring that practice back. 

But legislation nixing the state’s prohibition on ballot collecting is almost certainly dead-on-arrival with Republicans in control of both the state House and Senate. 

Rep. Stephanie Stahl-Hamilton, D-Tucson, told the Arizona Mirror that even though her House Bill 2335 is unlikely to become law, she still believes that introducing it was worthwhile. A similar bill was introduced last year by then-Rep. Athena Salman but was never considered. 

“It’s important not to be silent,” Stahl Hamilton said. “This is one step in pushing for a strengthened  democracy.” 

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If passed, the bill would get rid of ballot collection restrictions that say voted early ballots in Arizona can only be returned by the voter’s family member, a member of their household or their caregiver. 

There are 17 states that don’t place significant restrictions on ballot collecting, with 28 that do place restrictions on collections and five states that only allow the voter to return their own ballot, according to the progressive nonprofit think tank, Movement Advancement Project. 

Some point to the debunked documentary “2000 Mules” in an attempt to prove that allowing more people to collect voted ballots would make illegal ballot harvesting easier. But proponents of expanded ballot collections believe that prohibitions on it restrict access to voting, especially for people in rural areas and for those without a personal vehicle. 

Ballot collection campaigns in Arizona have historically been conducted by groups aligned with liberal causes, and particularly aimed at newly registered or infrequent voters. Then-state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the Republican who sponsored Arizona’s law in 2016, said at the time that ballot collection “is ripe for a lot of things to go wrong.”

But there is no evidence that widespread voter fraud has taken place in Arizona. 

“Illegal ballot harvesting is not a thing,” Darrell Hill, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, told the Mirror. 

Unique bar codes tied to each voter are printed on every early ballot envelope and are scanned when they are returned, and each early ballot requires a signature that must be consistent with the voter’s prior signatures.

Ballot collection efforts have been demonized, Hill said, as a way to explain losses at the polls by the people who were previously in control in Arizona. 

The Arizona legislature passed the bill that restricted ballot collections in 2016, but it faced a lengthy court challenge after Democratic groups sued, and in 2018, a federal district court sided with Arizona. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later struck the law down, saying that it violates the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against minority voters. 

Then-Attorney General Mark Brnovich appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the law in a 6-3 ruling in July 2021. 

Just a few people have been prosecuted via this law, including former San Luis Mayor Guillermina Fuentes, who was jailed for 30 days, for unlawfully collecting ballots from four community members in the 2020 primary. 

After giving birth just days before Election Day 2004, Stahl Hamilton says she understands the importance of allowing people various voting options. 

“It would benefit a lot of people,” Stahl Hamilton said of the bill, “including those who have a hard time driving or don’t have access to transportation.” 

She added that she believes getting rid of the ballot collection restrictions would especially benefit the residents of rural communities who live far away from a post office and who don’t have access to public transportation. 

“Any time we throw up barriers and challenges and obstacles, we are taking apart democracy one step at a time,” Stahl Hamilton said. 

Historically, churches that serve various communities, including conservative, Black and Latino ones, have coordinated robust ballot collecting initiatives, especially for the elderly and disabled within their congregations, Hill said. 

“I think the law hurts voters, especially people reliant on neighbors and churches to assist them in not just voting, but in other ways,” he said. 

Mi Familia Vota Arizona, a nonprofit that advocates for voting rights, also supports the removal of ballot collection restrictions from Arizona law, Michael Ruiz, civic engagement director for the organization, told the Mirror. 

Mi Familia Vota knocks on thousands of doors every year, he said, and by removing this restriction, the organization could collect legally voted ballots to return for tabulation during door knocking initiatives and could gather completed ballots during office events to return on behalf of voters, Ruiz said. 

“Unfortunately leadership at the legislature has not been open to smart, conscientious changes that open pathways to more voter participation,” Hill said, adding that he thinks the bill deserves at least a hearing so that the people can hear an honest debate on the subject.

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