Elections bills move forward, mostly along party lines

Arizona senators voted to approve several election reform bills in one day, including a Republican bill based on a conspiracy theory that would require more robust testing of ballot tabulating machines ahead of elections. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle strayed from the norm of straight party-line votes on numerous bills Feb. 26, with Democrats supporting some Republican sponsored measures and some Republican proposals rejected via bipartisan votes, although most bills were still approved along party lines. 

Senate Bill 1288 was approved by a partisan vote of 16-13 with only Republicans voting in favor. The bill would require public testing of all electronic ballot tabulators no more than 25 days prior to the start of early voting, with a required notice to the public and political parties so that they have the options to observe. 

Arizona law already requires public testing of electronic ballot tabulators before and after elections, and the reports of post-election hand-count audits of the machines are made public.

Following the testing, SB1288 would require the machines be sealed until the start of early voting. Anyone who breaks the seal and tampers with the machine or reprograms it, and does not perform another test, would be guilty of a felony.

The legislation is aimed at claims from Republican candidates who lost their elections in 2022 — like Kari Lake — who say current logic and accuracy tests required for tabulators are insufficient, as well as conspiracy theories surrounding the 2022 general election in Maricopa County.

And Senate Bill 1375, sponsored by Sen. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, and approved by a partisan vote of 16-13, would require that an identification number be printed on every ballot in each Arizona election. Batches of those ballots would then be assigned to a voting location with the numbers published on a public logue, and counties would be tasked with keeping track of the ballots. 

Senate Concurrent Resolution 1011, which would ask voters this fall to require in the state constitution that all people who vote in elections in the state are citizens of the U.S. and Arizona and be at least 18 years old, was also passed by a vote of 16-13. 

Arizona voters have previously approved requiring voters prove their citizenship to register, though federal courts have ruled the law only applies to state and local elections, as federal election law places no such requirement on voters in federal elections. As a result, voters who have not verified their citizenship are only allowed to vote on federal election contests.

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, said she struggled to understand the need for the legislation, before voting against it.

Sundareshan pointed out that the U.S. Constitution already requires that voters in U.S. elections be citizens who are at least 18 years old. She added that the resolution would also ban ranked-choice voting, something that the legislature already voted last year to send to the 2024 ballot via a different resolution

Lawmakers are already concerned about the possibility of a lengthy 2024 general election ballot and a multitude of proposed voter resolutions in both chambers have yet to be approved and could add to ballot length. Sundareshan questioned why the legislators would approve another measure to make the ballot longer, especially when the resolution is redundant. 

Also approved by a 16-13 party line vote on Feb. 26 was Senate Concurrent Resolution 1023, which would allow voters to decide whether to require cities, towns and school districts to hold elections for their governing bodies during the November general election in even-numbered years. The proposal’s sponsor, Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, explained to the Senate Elections Committee on Feb. 15 that the resolution was meant to consolidate elections and ensure a better voter turnout since local elections that don’t take place in November or are held on off-cycle years typically have much lower turnout than for midterm and presidential elections. 

GOP lawmakers have repeatedly tried to consolidate local election dates over the past 15 years or so, but the courts have ruled that the laws doing so do not apply to charter cities — among them the major metropolises of Phoenix and Tucson — which enjoy special protections under the Arizona Constitution.

Mesnard’s SCR1023 would add the consolidated election requirement to the state constitution, effectively overriding the charter city protections.

Some Democrats joined Republicans in support of Sen. Ken Bennett’s Senate Bill 1656, which was approved by a vote of 20-9. The Prescott Republican’s proposal would require that county election officials document chain of custody for all paper used for Arizona ballots, from the time it is delivered until after ballots are tabulated. 

Bennett said the bill was meant to continue a practice that was in place when he was Arizona’s secretary of state and that it will increase confidence in the state’s elections by “accounting for every piece of ballot paper.” 

Bennett, along with the rest of the senators, rejected an amendment to the bill by Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, which would have put the state treasurer in charge of withholding 1% of the state’s shared revenue from counties that don’t comply with the ballot paper chain of custody procedures. The treasurer would be tasked with investigating a county for possible violations of the law only if one or more state legislators requested it. Kern added that, in its existing form, Bennett’s bill didn’t have an enforcement mechanism. 

Bennett said he opposed the amendment because at present the state treasurer doesn’t play a role in state elections, and he didn’t want to put that burden on the treasurer.  

Another bill sponsored by Bennett, Senate Bill 1657, was voted down 12-17, with a few Republicans voting against the bill, along with Democrats. 

The bill would have allowed counties to start pilot programs to test new methods of verifying the identities of early voters, such as the kind of two-factor authentication that banks sometimes use. One common way that banks do this is by sending a verification code to a cell phone or email address that the user previously registered with the bank. 

Bennett pointed out that the way that Arizona verifies the identities of early voters — by comparing their signatures on ballot envelopes to the voter’s previous signatures — was antiquated and that there are better ways to do it. 

“This would allow counties to move in this direction because that’s where the world is already,” Bennett said.

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