AZ House Speaker Cuts Weekend Voting from Compromise Election Bill

[Image via localfirstaz]

County election officials in Arizona are unhappy after the state House Speaker cut weekend voting from a compromise election bill in the Grand Canyon State. AZCentral has more:

A bill to modernize elections that had broad support from both parties ran into a partisan buzz saw last week when the Republican House leader stripped key items such as weekend voting.

The legislation would have allowed Arizona counties with the proper technology to keep early voting centers open from Saturday through Monday before Election Day, giving voters three more days to cast a ballot.

The current prohibition on voting during the weekend dates to when election departments needed time to mark paper rosters by hand to note who cast early ballots before Election Day.

Maricopa County, which serves 2.2 million voters, and other smaller counties now have technology that updates the voter database in real time. The computer system records immediately when someone casts an early ballot, eliminating the need for election officials to close early voting centers the weekend before Election Day to reconcile records.

SB 1466 was a rare compromise between all 15 county recorders — eight Republicans and seven Democrats — as well as the bipartisan County Supervisors Association, Arizona Association of Counties, the Maricopa County Republican Party and left-leaning election reform groups. It unanimously passed the Senate and two House committees.

The Speaker argues that the weekend voting provision had to go, despite counties’ bipartisan support:

But Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, gutted the weekend voting provision and other items Thursday, causing Democrats to revolt.

The amended bill passed the House 34-24 along party lines. It is expected to go to the Senate for a final vote soon.

Democratic lawmakers accused Mesnard of limiting access to the ballot box.

“We really did have an opportunity to make voting more accessible in all of our communities. But instead right now, the bill as amended creates more barriers,” said Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe. “And in an election year, that’s a shame.”

Election officials on both sides of the aisle are unhappy, saying weekend voting would help them serve voters better on and before Election Day – while the Speaker scoffed at the notion that maintaining the status quo “hurts” anyone:

Republican recorders who supported the bill said the amendment would hurt voters.

People who work on Election Day want to be able to vote on the weekend, said Yuma County Recorder Robyn Stallworth Pouquette, a Republican.

Staying open on the weekend would let voters update their addresses and other important information so that lines are shorter, the ballot count goes faster and election integrity is stronger on Election Day, she said.”The more voters I could resolve an issue the weekend before the Tuesday election, that’s a certain number of voters who don’t have to cast a provisional ballot,” Pouquette said. “The technology creates a more secure environment … to reconcile voters who received an early ballot and voters showing up on Election Day.”

Mesnard called “absurd” accusations that the amendment creates barriers to voting since the bill would keep the status quo.

“There is nothing in this bill that makes it harder for people to vote,” he said.

Mesnard said his goal was returning the bill to its simpler form, before the larger compromise was negotiated with county officials across the state.

The initial intent of the bill was to streamline election preparations by giving broader authority for choosing voting locations – though at least one high-profile local official thinks the changes are aimed in part at him:

Originally, the Maricopa County Republican Party and members of the GOP-led Maricopa County Board of Supervisors pushed for the bill to give supervisors across the state more authority over elections. The amended legislation allows supervisors to choose early voting locations without sign off from recorders.

Preventing recorders from having “crazy amounts of power” by delegating authority to boards is necessary, County GOP Chairman Chris Herring said.

“We don’t want a single person, no matter who that is, in any county having sole authority over how 90 percent of voters can vote,” he said, referring to the growing popularity of in-person early voting and early mail-in ballots.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes told lawmakers in an email urging a “no” vote that he believed the bill was aimed at him.

Since Fontes took over last year as the first Democrat to hold the office in at least 50 years, he has clashed with the Board of Supervisors and Republicans have attempted to limit his power. In recent months, his relationship with the board appeared to improve.

Supervisors don’t have the expertise to make election decisions on their own, said both Republican Yuma recorder Pouquette and Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez, a Democrat. They criticized the party politics affecting the bill.

“(Lawmakers) obviously didn’t listen to those of us who are dealing with this,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t get involved in the political thing. We work in the best interest of the public. We are split along party lines. … The recorders are trying to address the demand of what the public wants.”

Legislators who reject bipartisan compromises disillusion voters and “then wonder why so many people are registering as independent,” Rodriguez said.

The Speaker’s supporters in the House say it’s all part of the regular legislative process:

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said he was willing to sacrifice weekend voting so the legislation would move forward.

“I don’t think that’s worth fighting over,” he said. “The Legislature is full of compromises. There’s never anything that goes through 100 percent.”

Measures in the bill such as increasing oversight by county supervisors and clarifying antiquated language are important, he said.

“If people want to use it to make political hay, that’s unfortunate,” he said.

Like it or not, this is a typical story in the relationship between local election officials and their state legislatures; as hard as it may be to get bipartisan local support for election changes, it means nothing if lawmakers – especially ones in leadership – can’t or won’t go along. Barring a change of heart in the State Capitol, it looks like the weekend voting compromise is off the table for now in Arizona but you can bet the county officials will be back to try again soon … stay tuned!

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