By Terri Jo Neff
State senators are expected to debate Monday whether to approve a bill that requires Arizona’s 15 county recorders to drop registered voters from the Permanent Early Voting List (PEVL) who do not respond to a drop-notification letter that they have not utilized their mail-in ballots in a four-year period.
Since 2007, registered voters have been allowed to submit a written request to add their name to PEVL, which ensures the voter automatically receives a ballot by mail for each election instead of having to request one every time. More than 3 million voters in Arizona are on PEVL.
State law specifies that a failure to vote by early ballot does not constitute grounds to be removed from PEVL, although there are estimates that more than 100,000 PEVL voters across Arizona have not voted by early ballot in the last four years.
In January, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-LD23) introduced SB1069 which would have required county recorders to remove PEVL voters who do not cast their early ballot for two consecutive primary and general elections for which there was a federal, statewide or legislative race on the ballot.
The intent, according to Ugenti-Rita, is to ensure unwanted ballots are not mailed out, saving counties money and ensuring ballot integrity. PEVL would become EVL if the bill passes.
“There’s a cost associated with sending out ballots to people who aren’t voting by mail,” she said during one a committee meeting last month. “There’s also an integrity component,”
Every time a PEVL voter casts an early ballot in a primary or general election that includes a federal, statewide or legislative race it would restart the voter’s drop-off clock. Being removed from PEVL has no impact on a voter’s registration status.
As a safeguard, Ugenti-Rita’s legislation requires the county recorders or other county elections officials to send a written notification by Dec. 1 of each even-numbered year to any PEVL voter identified as being subject to removal. Such voters who wish to remain on PEVL must then send back a signed notice with their address and date of birth within 30 days.
On Feb. 16, Ugenti-Rita’s bill failed to pass the Senate Committee on Government on a 15-15 vote. Days later the text of SB1069 was swapped into SB1485, another election-related legislation. The full Senate is slated to vote on SB1485 on Monday.
The legislation is supported by the Barry Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Research, but has been opposed by the Stonewall Democrats of Arizona, the Arizona Education Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. Another PAC which opposes SB1069-turned-SB1485 is Unite Arizona, a political action committee financed by the Unite America Election Fund based in Denver.
According TransparencyUSA.org, the Unite American Election Fund gave more than $850,000 in the past year to Unite Arizona. In turn, Unite Arizona gave $505,000 to Our Arizona Values, representing all of the funds received by that group.
Public records show 99 percent of the funds received by Our Arizona Values was paid to Polestar, which spent nearly $240,000 last year in an unsuccessful effort to unseat Sen. Nancy Barto (R-LD15) in the Republican primary. Barto is seen as strong voice on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has introduced bills this session aimed at election integrity issues.
As sponsor of the bill, Ugenti-Rita has spent a lot of time responding to attacks by legislators who contend dropping voters from PEVL interferes with voting rights. She said during last week’s Senate Rules Committee meeting that she was offended by how some opponents appeared to be “purposefully mischaracterizing” the bill in an attempt “to demonize it” with voters.
“If you want to oppose the bill because there’s an actual provision in there that you don’t like, I mean, I get it,” she said last week. “But attacking voting rights? This is a voluntary list that we’re taking about. There is no right to be on PEVL.”
Ugenti-Rita added that suggestions by some legislators that the bill attacks individuals’ rights to vote or that it could prohibit someone from voting “is very dangerous rhetoric in a time when inflammatory, incendiary language should not be utilized especially when we are discussing relevant policy.”
The now-SB1485 is quite different from a PEVL bill introduced this session by Rep. Kevin Payne (R-LD21) who sought to do away with PEVL completely, even though in some counties more than 80 percent of all ballots cast in the 2020 General Election came in via mail or were dropped off early.
Meanwhile, election-related Senate Bill 1025 introduced by Sen. Kelly Townsend (R-LD16) passed the Senate on a 16 to 14 vote last week and is awaiting a First Read in the House.
SB1025 had been expected to receive greater bi-partisan support as it was intended to ensure voters understood what it meant if a machine reader alerted to an overvote situation. The bill requires election officials or polling station judges to know what an overvote (or undervote) warning means so they can explain it to in-person voters who might be faced with such a warning.