Arizona Leads Ballot Clampdown for GOP Reckoning With 2020 Loss

  • Are use-or-lose bills suppression or voter-roll housekeeping?
  • Georgia, Mississippi, Minnesota legislation ready for action

Arizona, which just beat its all-time election turnout by more than 759,000 ballots, is on the leading edge of Republican-controlled legislatures pursuing new restrictions on voting.

The state’s GOP lawmakers say they’re trying to restore confidence in the election system after former President Donald Trump lacked a valid path to contest a race he lost by a fraction of a percentage point.

Their proposals, some of which could be voted on as soon as Tuesday, include making recounts easier, forcing absentee voters to go to a notary before heading to the mailbox, and a use-it-or-lose it bill to cancel the automatic early ballots sent to voters who sit out two elections in a row.

Also moving fast: Mississippi, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Behind many of the bills is the fresh memory of “Stop the Steal” rallies and unsubstantiated allegations about “fraudulent” vote-counting in states where participation rates were large and President Joe Biden’s edge was small—a third of a percentage point, for instance, in Arizona.

“They believe, even though it’s not true, that a higher-turnout election is an election that’s stolen,” said Nathan Shrader, a politics and government professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate at a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally in front of the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on Nov. 7, 2020.

The attention to the conduct of elections follows a record-setting 2020, in which Biden (D) became the first U.S. presidential candidate to exceed 80 million votes. He secured more than 81.2 million versus 74.2 million for Trump (R). More than 100 million voters heeded pandemic distancing advice by casting their ballots early or by mail.

Voter identification bills of all kinds have been filed in at least 28 states, and absentee or early-voting legislation has been introduced in at least 45 states, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Critics say they worry that changes could disproportionately disadvantage people of color and amount to voter suppression

‘Human Nature’

Arizona, a swing state where Republicans control both chambers of the state Legislature, is ground zero for officials questioning the process.

“It’s human nature to wonder,” Arizona state Sen. J.D. Mesnard (R) said during debate of a bill (SB 1010) he sponsored to let people pay for recounts instead of relying on the state’s automatic trigger. “It’s human nature to doubt the machines.”

Arizona state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R) said the legislation she’s sponsoring can best be described as “just cleaning up our lists and it’s good housekeeping.” Her measure (SB 1069), which is among the bills positioned for fast consideration, would drop people from the list of voters who automatically receive early ballots by mail if they skip two consecutive primary and general elections with federal, statewide, or legislative races.

“You cannot suppress an act that is not happening,” Ugenti-Rita said on Twitter. “Not mailing ballots to voters who don’t vote by mail doesn’t suppress their vote b/c they aren’t voting by mail. Maybe they’re voting in-person. Stop firing off inflammatory words & inciting fear in voters by spreading falsehoods.”

Ugenti-Rita also is the sponsor of a bill (SB 1358) to restrict where county recorders can hold voter registration drives, eliminating grocery stores, festivals, or other community gathering places. The intent is to prevent favoritism toward any particular political party by requiring registration only at government-owned sites, she said.

Proposals Proliferate

In Kentucky—a state that Trump won—a Feb. 2 veto override shifted to legislators all authority over the “manner” of elections during emergencies. Gov. Andy Beshear (D) immediately sued.

Republican-controlled legislatures in Georgia and Pennsylvania, both of which were won by Biden, are prioritizing bills to change the way elections are run even when there’s no emergency.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Michael Puskaric (R) cited “mass confusion” and concerns about election fraud in sponsoring a measure (HB 25) to repeal voting-by-mail expansions approved by legislators and the governor, a Democrat, in 2019.

In Georgia, where Democrats pulled off victories in runoffs for U.S. Senate seats, Republicans propose banning ballot drop boxes (SB 68), ending automatic voter registration, and abolishing no-excuse absentee voting. One measure (SB 29) would require voters to submit a copy of their photo ID twice—first when applying to vote by mail and also when submitting those ballots.

A legislative committee in Minnesota has approved a measure (SF 173) that would require people to show photo identification at the polls—something voters considered in 2012 when they rejected a proposed constitutional amendment.

Use-it-or-lose it legislation is ready for a floor debate in Mississippi, which also had record voter turnout in 2020. Committees in both chambers have advanced bills (HB 4 and SB 2588) that would purge from the rolls voters who fail to cast a ballot at least once during a four-year period and who also fail to respond to notices from county election commissions to update their registration information.

During a Jan. 28 hearing, Mississippi state Rep. Zakiya Summers (D) cast her objections in the context of other constitutional rights.

“When you think about the Second Amendment, just because you don’t shoot your firearm doesn’t mean you lose your right to have one. I think that appears to be the intent of this bill,” she said.

No voters would be removed within 90 days of a federal election, and anyone who gets removed would have the time and opportunity to register again, countered Rep. Charles Jim Beckett (R).

While election bills are introduced in many legislative sessions, this year’s proposals stand out because so many of them seize on falsehoods about the 2020 balloting, said Alex Gulotta, Arizona state director for All Voting is Local, a voting-rights organization.

“We’ve gone to a bad place,” Gulotta said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer Kay in Miami at jkay@bloomberglaw.com; Brenna Goth in Phoenix at bgoth@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Tina May at tmay@bloomberglaw.com

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