Republicans, Hobbs on a collision course over how to fix the election recount law
Republican lawmakers are gearing up for a showdown with Gov. Katie Hobbs over creating a fix for an impending election timeline issue created by Republican changes to the state’s recount law which could lead to overseas and military voters becoming disenfranchised and the state’s choice for president not being counted.
The Republican proposal, which also includes provisions aimed at signature verification, the use of school facilities for voting and other changes, has already been deemed dead on arrival by Gov. Katie Hobbs, who said that she would only support a “clean fix.”
Any measure that is passed will also need two-thirds of the legislature to approve of it in order to trigger an emergency measure in the bill, allowing it to go into effect immediately.
On Tuesday, the Senate and House convened a special meeting to hear two bills aimed at addressing issues that Arizona counties and election officials say could disenfranchise military voters. The issue stems from a 2022 bill that greatly expanded when an automatic recount is triggered.
Counties and election officials have been stating that due to the change and the anticipated likelihood of automatic recounts being triggered under the new law, it will increase the risk of Arizona missing federal deadlines required for elections, such as the deadline to mail ballots to military members overseas. Officials also said that it could cause counties to miss the federal deadline for sending the state’s Presidential Electors to Congress.
Republicans and Democratic members of the legislature have been negotiating a fix to the issue since summer of 2023, however, if a fix is not made by this week, counties are anticipating that it could impact voters and lead to issues. Counties have been asking that the upcoming primary election be moved to earlier in the year to accommodate for the new recount thresholds and to allow for counties to meet these deadlines.
Tuesday’s meeting hearing the two Republican measures started off with a warning from Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, one of the chairs, who said that testimony on the bills would be limited and she would remove anyone who caused any disruptions.
Rogers also shot down any line of questioning related to if the bills could impact any litigation that Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, an election attorney, might currently be engaged in. Kolodin sponsored the House legislation.
And last year, he was sanctioned for election lawsuits he brought in Arizona following the 2020 election.
“We will not cast aspersions by deflecting to things that are not germane,” Rogers said after Sen. Priya Sundareshen, D-Tucson, asked about the impact of codifying parts of the Elections Procedures Manual on signature verification could impact litigation Kolodin has been involved in. “That is not a rabbit hole we are going down.”
Clean fix or not
Democrats and voting advocates have been pushing for a “clean fix” to the impending timeline issue faced by election officials.
Rep. Laura Terech, D-Scottsdale, put forward the Democrats’ own solution, which primarily focused on changing the timeline for recounts, canvassing and testing of election equipment. Democratic lawmakers stated that they would not support legislation that added additional policy changes to any bill aimed at addressing the issue.
During the press conference Monday, Sundareshen said that the “clean fix” solution put forward by the Democrats was created after “months” of negotiations with Republicans, who she said had agreed to many of the terms approximately two weeks ago.
Republicans offered a different view during Tuesday’s committee meeting.
Republican lawmakers said that their intention is to make sure counties are not “rushing” when it comes to certain procedures if timelines are crunched. They specifically cited signature verification, which was a key point in failed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s lawsuit aiming to overturn the 2022 election results.
Republicans contended that the bill simply codifies into law the guidelines around signature verification that were set forth by the Election Procedures Manual created by then Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in 2019.
“There is absolutely zero problem with codifying what the counties are already doing,” Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, said. “Let’s ensure that counties are following the law.”
However, Democratic members and voting rights advocates argued that the language in the bill is different from the EPM. In the bill, it states that a signature must be “clearly consistent,” which Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates said is a much higher standard than the current EPM which states that a signature that is different and can be “reasonably explained” can still be accepted.
“That’s going to stay in the bill,” Kolodin said, replying to his Democratic colleagues who voiced concern over the change.
Jen Marson, executive director for the Arizona Association of Counties, said that county recorders were on board with the change, though there has been some disagreement among county recorders. Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly sent a letter to the committee declaring her opposition to the bill.
Rep. Betty Villegas, D-Tucson, attempted to read the letter, but Rogers said Villegas couldn’t do so until they were voting on the bill.
“I guess my recorder doesn’t have a voice,” Villegas retorted.
Other county recorders did speak to the committee in support of the legislation, including Yavapai County Recorder Michelle Burchill and Pinal County Recorder Dana Lewis.
“I know it has been a lot of give and take on all sides,” Burchill told the committee. “We will make this work no matter what the version is.”
Marson echoed those sentiments during her testimony, saying that the counties were ready to implement changes in the bill and that they had been involved with negotiations with legislators since early last summer.
“We have done a great job of working with the players so far, and we can work with the different variations,” Marson said, adding that they do not want to see any more new policy changes added to the bills. “If you leave things in, we can do it. If you take things out, we can do it.”
However, Hobbs and Secretary of State Adrian Fontes have both made clear that they desire a “clean fix” to the problem.
“I have shown time and time again that I am willing to compromise, but I will not sign a bill that’s filled with harmful unrelated legislation or that hurts voters’ right to have their voice heard at the ballot box,” Hobbs said in a joint statement with Fontes. “I have been clear from day one: voters did not create this problem, and they should not be harmed to fix it.”
The main goal that counties are seeking to have done by this week is to save 19 days in the primary calendar and 17 in the general election so there is more time to contend with a possible automatic recount. Officials have repeatedly said that, in order to meet timelines, a fix must be done by Feb. 9.
Without a fix, election officials may be unable to send voters overseas their ballots in time for them to reach them and have the correct information on them in the case that a recount in the primary changes the ballot. Members of the Arizona National Guard Association have voiced their concerns about this possibility and have been urging lawmakers to pass a fix.
The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office was sued in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Justice after it concluded that absentee and UOCAVA ballots were not given enough time during a special election.
Republican lawmakers have also been opposed to an outright repeal of the 2022 recount law to return the state to its previous automatic recount thresholds.
Michele Ugenti-Rita, a former lawmaker from Scottsdale who spearheaded the recount change, and who is now running for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, placed blame directly on the counties and election officials in a statement to the Arizona Mirror.
“It is shameful there is not greater outrage about the dereliction of duty perpetrated by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisor’s [sic] and county election officials who are unable and unwilling to perform their statutory duties and instead resort to pitiful scare tactics that exploit our nations [sic] real heroes,” Ugenti-Rita said.
The bill put forward by Republicans to fix the issue proposes several changes, including moving the Aug. 6 primary to July 30 this year, and then to March beginnin in 2026. It would also allow counties to send their voter canvasses to the secretary of state electronically, shorten the time counties have to submit their election canvass by three days, allow a candidate to opt out of a recount and allow for five calendar days instead of business days for voters to “cure” questioned signatures on early ballots.
The latter change gave Democratic lawmakers worry, as they claimed that switching the ballot cure period to include weekends could disenfranchise voters who use public transportation or live in rural communities. Republicans said that the change is for the better, allowing those who may not be able to cure their ballot during the weekday due to work to do so on the weekend instead.
Republicans said they are willing to amend certain parts of the bill to get buy-in from Democrats, but Kolodin insisted that the signature verification changes must remain.
Voting rights advocates, one of which was removed from Tuesday’s hearing, feel differently.
‘Take your seat, now!’
Ben Scheel, executive director for the left-leaning Opportunity Arizona, has been kicked out of and prohibited from testifying to legislative committees before.
Last session, Scheel and others voiced their concerns about Republican lawmakers silencing progressive organizations they disagreed with at the Capitol after he was denied the ability to speak at the House Elections Committee and then barred from ever doing so after he used the phrase “conspiracy theorist.”
Although Rogers said the legislative panels would hear from an equal number of supporters and opponents of the bill, Republicans only took testimony from a single person against the measure. When Scheel, who opposes the bill, approached the podium and asked if he could speak, he was yelled down by Rogers and others.
“Take your seat, now!” Rogers shouted, before calling for the Senate sergeant-at-arms to remove Scheel. Other members objected and asked if he could speak, but Rogers refused.
Parker, who booted Scheel from the House Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee last year, said that Scheel did not respect the body.
“It’s appalling,” Scheel said to the Mirror about being removed from the hearing.
“I believe they are making attempts that are undemocratic and harming voters, and their response is to not let the public comment on that,” he added. “I think they prove our point when they behave this way.”
Scheel said he believes that the legislature should only focus on a “clean fix” and believes that the bills proposed by Republicans will ultimately harm voters. He said that the changes to signature verification will ultimately lead to the tossing out of legitimate votes, adding that Republican lawmakers are “holding hostage” a fix for their own policy gains.
“They are simply trying to make it more difficult to validate signatures,” Scheel said, adding that he has never been stopped from providing testimony in the Senate before.
Rogers also disallowed questions related to Kolodin’s involvement in litigation surrounding signature verification, as well as how the legislation could impact it.
“Is anyone who is involved in those lawsuits, were they involved in these negotiations?” Sundareshen asked. When she pushed to ask the question again, Rogers cut her off.
“This is a far cry from the arrangement and agreement we came to a few weeks ago,” Sundareshen said later. “I fear that the signature verification aspect is intended to assist in ongoing litigation.”
Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, said he intends to reach out to both parties to hopefully address everyone’s concerns moving forward.
“I believe that all of the concerns that have been noted today…can and should be addressed between now and the committees of the whole in our respective bodies,” Bennett said.
Other Republicans said that, while not perfect, the fix is what is needed to ensure voters overseas can still participate in the upcoming elections.
“None of the curing process that we are proposing here is going to disenfranchise anybody,” Rep. Austin Smith, R-Surprise, said, adding that he is looking forward to seeing the bill further amended.
Both the Senate and House bills passed out of committee along party lines. They’ll next be considered by their respective chambers, where they will need a vote of two-thirds of all lawmakers in order for it to pass and go into effect immediately instead of 90 days after legislators end their annual session, which typically happens in May or June.
Republicans hold one-vote majorities in each body, meaning Democratic opposition will ensure the fix won’t be in place to change anything for this year’s elections.
Those opposed to the measure have stated they intend to continue to fight for a “clean fix.”
“They are holding our elections hostage in order to make it easier to invalidate ballots from MAGA extreme Republican attorneys,” Scheel said.