The 2020 elections are still more than a year away — yes, we somehow still have a full year of campaigning ahead — but the topic of voting access in Arizona is already re-emerging as a hot button issue.
The U.S. House Subcommittee on Elections held a hearing in Phoenix on Tuesday, where they discussed the issue of ballot collection, a practice in which individuals collect and turn in another voter’s completed ballot, with the voter’s permission.
The practice, which is legal in 27 states, including states as red as Arkansas and as blue as California, is currently illegal in Arizona, thanks to a 2016 Republican-passed law which made ballot collection a felony, punishable with up to a $150,000 fine and a year in prison. Exemptions were made for family members, household members, and caregivers who can still return another voter’s ballot, but the law’s critics still took legal action, saying it had a disproportionate impact on minorities. The case made its way through various courts before ultimately being upheld by the Arizona District Court in May 2018.
Among the supporters of ballot collection are Phoenix-area U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz), who appeared at the hearing on Tuesday and told ABC15 that the practice provides residents of rural tribal communities the opportunity to vote in elections when they might otherwise be unable to.
Indeed, the issue of ballot collection is particularly relevant for residents of far-flung rural tribal communities, as the headline of a 2018 Mother Jones story made clear: 4,000 Square Miles. One Post Office. Why It’s So Hard to Vote in Arizona’s Indian Country. Voting rates in Arizona’s Indian Country are substantially lower than state and national averages due in part to a dearth of polling sites, limited transportation and mail service, and the Republican ban on ballot collection.
Gallego also told ABC15 that ballot collection has only been considered a problem by Republicans in Arizona after Democratic groups adopted the practice. “For many years it was something that was allowed and permissible,” he said. “What happened when you look at the history is that when the Latino Democratic community started practicing the same thing that the Republicans practiced then all of a sudden it was a problem.”
Speaking out against the practice on Tuesday was State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale), author of the 2016 law that banned ballot collection in Arizona. Ugenti-Rita’s defense of the ban on ballot collection — which she and many Republican allies cynically label as “ballot harvesting” — drew significant criticism from the audience on Tuesday.
Afterwards, she told ABC15 that “The practice of allowing third parties to collect other people’s ballots is not good government and it’s not a good elections practice.”
Supporters of ballot collection say it helps increase voter turnout by removing barriers to voting, which is particularly relevant in a state like Arizona, where approximately 80% of voters choose to receive their ballot by mail, according to the nonpartisan Arizona Clean Elections Commission.
Like Gallego, these ballot collection advocates say that the Republican ban on the practice is part and parcel of their increasing attack on voting rights in the wake of Arizona trending blue.
This year alone, while Arizona Democrats introduced an “Arizona voters bill of rights” and fought to expand voting access, Ugenti-Rita and fellow Republicans continued to perpetuate the myth that stricter voting laws prevent voter fraud. State Rep. Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff) introduced a bill that would have canceled a voter’s registration if the individual did not vote in two consecutive federal primary and general elections and failed to respond to a county recorder’s notice asking if their address had changed.
Republicans also attempted to limit early voting and one of Ugenti-Rita’s own bills would have barred voters who receive ballots by mail from dropping them off at early voting centers or Election Day polling places, forcing them to return ballots by mail only.
These measures failed, but they reflect a broader trend that has made Arizona of the hardest states in the nation to vote in, according to a 2018 report from Northern Illinois University.
Recent years have seen story after story after story about how the state has made it difficult to vote, particularly for minorities and those not living in Maricopa or Pina Counties, and the Arizona Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report in 2018 highlighting Arizona’s persistent attack on voting rights.
The report cited the state’s history of banning Native Americans from voting, disenfranchising voters by requiring literacy tests, limiting access to polling locations, failing to print election materials in languages other than English, the implementation of voter ID law, and most recently, the state’s restriction on ballot collection.