Arizona Republicans target the state's mail voting system in series of bills

Arizona Republicans are proposing drastic changes to its mail voting systems, a move that echoes the flurry of election restrictions advanced in GOP-controlled legislatures in a number of states after former President Donald Trump's election loss.

Republican lawmakers in Arizona have introduced at least 22 restrictive bills, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. More than half the proposals address mail voting, with one particularly contentious bill seeking to kick infrequent voters off something called the Permanent Early Voting List, or PEVL. Arizona voters have been voting by mail for 30 years, while the GOP-led Legislature created the PEVL, which sends voters who have opted in ballots in the mail automatically, in 2007.

"We are seeing this as a full on assault on voting rights and democratic institutions in Arizona," Emily Kirkland, executive director of the advocacy group Progress Arizona, said, arguing that the same state lawmakers advancing voting restrictions had spread Trump's lie of a stolen election. "This is part of a pattern."

Progress Arizona is one of several lobbying against the legislation, using everything from billboards to T-shirts to mobilize against bills it argues would make it harder for voters, and particularly voters of color, to register to vote and cast ballots by mail.

While Republicans control all three branches of state government, it's unclear if these bills can make it past Gov. Doug Ducey, who has defended the state's mail voting system in the past. Democrats, as well as leading civil and voting rights advocates have protested the laws as voter suppression. One of the proposed bills, which has since died in committee, would have let legislators ignore the election results and override the certification of presidential electors. Last week, state Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican, told CNN that the party was concerned with the "quality" of the voters.

"Not everybody wants to vote, and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they're totally uninformed on the issues," Kavanagh told the network. "Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well."

His remarks prompted immediate outrage. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, said on MSNBC that "these are the same justifications that we heard in the era of Jim Crow."

The proposed restrictions come after President Joe Biden won Arizona by approximately 10,000 votes, triggering an onslaught of attacks from Trump, his allies and local Republicans, who have rushed to litigate the election process this year.

Trump’s stolen election lie has convinced many that fraud is a problem in American elections. Three out of every 4 Republicans believe that there was widespread voter fraud in last year’s election, according to a December Quinnipiac University poll, despite all evidence to the contrary. State Republicans in Texas, Georgia and Florida are now proposing voting restrictions that they say are needed to restore trust in the system. According to the Brennan Center, there are at least 253 restrictive bills under consideration in 43 states this year.

Image: An election official counts ballots inside the Maricopa County Recorder's Office in Phoenix (Matt York / AP file)
Image: An election official counts ballots inside the Maricopa County Recorder's Office in Phoenix (Matt York / AP file)

Mail voting, meanwhile, is an incredibly popular way to vote in Arizona: According to the state secretary of state's office, approximately 80 percent of voters cast ballots early — by mail or in person — before the pandemic. In 2020, that number rose to 88 percent.

Republicans hold narrow majorities in the Arizona Legislature, so broad support and attendance from lawmakers in sessions would be needed to get these measures through the state House and Senate. After that, they'd need to convince Ducey, who has defended Arizona's mail voting system in the past, to sign the bills. Ducey's office said he would not comment on pending legislation.

Democrats have come out in strong opposition to the bills, wearing Progress Arizona's "I <3 PEVL" T-shirts.

“Many of these measures would not improve our election systems but would only serve to make it harder for people to vote," Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said in a statement to NBC News. "Voters should not be punished because the Legislature did not like the outcome of the election."

Voting rights advocates told NBC News they are most worried about three proposed mail voting restrictions.

Senate Bill 1485, which awaits a final House vote,would remove voters who haven't cast a ballot in "both the primary election and the general election for two consecutive primary and general elections."

The bill says purges would occur in December of even-numbered years, removing voters who do not respond to a notice from officials. While the bill has been pitched as removing voters who do not cast a ballot in four elections, advocates warn that the language is confusing enough that it could lead to voters being tossed off the rolls for missing a single election. And independent voters have to request a party primary ballot to participate, so they could be removed after missing just two mailed ballots for general elections.

Arizona Wins, one of the groups working with Progress Arizona, analyzed state voter file data and found there were 126,686 Arizonans who voted in 2020 after sitting out the 2018 and 2016 primary and general elections. Those voters — a fifth of whom are Latino — might have been removed from PEVL by such a bill.

Senate Bill 1593 would shorten the window for mail voters to get and return their ballots and require they be postmarked on or prior to the Thursday before an election, something that could be particularly difficult on Arizona's many Native American reservations, where many people do not have home mail service. Turnout among Native American voters surged in 2020, fueling Biden's win.

What's more, post offices don't always postmark prepaid mailers, something advocates worry could lead clearly on-time ballots to be tossed by postal carrier error.

The bill awaits a Senate floor vote.

Senate Bill 1713would require voters to add more voter ID to their mail ballots, which could force those without driver's licenses to make copies of identifying documents. Currently, mail voters sign an affidavit attesting to their identity under penalty of perjury, and signatures are verified by county officials.

The bill will be heard in committee next week.

“These are all assaults on our democracy,” said Pinny Sheoran, an organizer with the League of Women Voters of Arizona, a nonpartisan group lobbyingagainst a spate of proposed bills. "No one in Arizona is buying the specious claims."