By Terri Jo Neff
While budget negotiations continued behind closed doors, the State House got back into action Monday by focusing on one of its showcase subjects – election integrity.
On a 31-29 party line vote, representatives passed SB1083 which if signed into law would change the criteria for when an election recount is necessary for some races. Depending on the race, recounts are currently only mandated is the margin of victory for a candidate between 10 and 200 votes, or one-tenth of one percent or less of the combined total votes cast for the top two candidates.
Under SB1083, a recount will be triggered in most races when the margin of victory is one-half of one percent or less. Supporters of the bill have pointed out for months that an automatic recount would have been triggered for the U.S. President race if Arizona had the new margin formula in place in November 2020.
The other bill passed Monday was SB1241 which involves the signature a voter is required to affix on an early ballot affidavit. If signed into law, it would require county election officials to refer certain non-matching signatures to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office or the local county attorney.
More than 80 percent of ballots cast in the 2020 General Election were early ballots which had to be mailed in a special envelope to the county recorder’s or dropped off at an official ballot box. Upon receipt, a county recorder employee verified the voter’s signature on the envelope by comparing it to digital copies of all prior signatures used by that voter.
If the signature did not appear to match the voter’s registration file, then the county recorder’s office would reach out to that voter who is given a choice to “cure” the signature within a specific time period. If the voter chooses not to cure the signature, or if local election officials cannot reach the voter, then the ballot inside that envelope is not counted.
Statewide, less than 2,000 out of the more than 3 million early ballots cast in the 2020 General Election were not counted based on a non-matching signature flag. It is unclear how many of those ballot affidavits were actually signed by someone other than the voter, or how many voters given an opportunity to cure chose not to because of COVID-19 or being out of state.
Rep. John Kavanagh has argued during this legislative session that elections officials and prosecutors need more options in their toolbox for addressing possible fraud. And he has complained that reports of there being little to no fraud connected to early voting is disingenuous without consistent statewide protocols.
“It’s easy to claim there’s no fraud in early ballots if you never look for fraud, even when it may be staring you right in the face,” he said Monday.
One issue facing smaller counties is that many of their county attorney’s offices do not have investigators. As a result, any investigatory work would likely have to be referred to the local county sheriff or even a local police department.
That possibility was the subject of questions raised during Monday’s floor debate about what protections would be in place to ensure the ballot itself is not identifiable to multiple people as possibly belonging to a specific voter. The Arizona Constitution guarantees a voter’s ballot choices are secret.
Because SB1241 was amended in the House, it has been transmitted back to the Senate for final action. It is expected to pass there on a party line vote and then head to Gov. Doug Ducey who has not said much about what election bills he may sign.