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Election reform law foments backlash

State Senator Michele Reagan (R-Scottsdale) sponsored the voter reform bill that was signed into law by Governor Brewer, sending its opponents into attack mode

State Senator Michele Reagan (R-Scottsdale) sponsored the voter reform bill that was signed into law by Governor Brewer, sending its opponents into attack mode

During the past legislative session, Republicans passed HB2305, a last-hour, omnibus measure that Governor Jan Brewer signed into law. The bill was originally sponsored by state senator Michele Reagan (R-Scottsdale).

Anybody who is not a Republican says the new law makes it harder to launch citizen initiatives and recalls, that it purges voters (targeting recent Latino registration) from the early mail-in ballot list, throws roadblocks in front of community-based non-profits that encourage voter registration, and requires almost impossibly large numbers of signatures for third-party candidates to get on the ballot.

The law riles Democratic legislators for another reason. They claim that Brewer promised to veto any such bill in exchange for Democratic votes to pass her expanded Medicaid law. They voted for her pet bill, and then she signed the law anyway, they say. 

Republicans say HB2305 is all about cleaning up early ballot lists by removing people who don’t vote and preventing snafus like the 170,000 provisional ballots handed out last election.  

“We completely support the legislation, because it allows the election officials to clean up the early voting list when people don’t use early voting. Most important, it prevents committees from picking up massive amounts of ballots by hand. It helps prevent voter fraud,” says Tim Sifert, communication director for the Arizona Republican Party. 

Democrats and third parties say it’s about keeping Republicans in power.

But the Republicans may discover that what they thought was clamping down a lock for their party’s incumbents and candidates could backfire in a big, messy way. 

A set of individuals and organizations called Protect Your Right to Vote Arizona Coalition is targeting House Bill 2305. Volunteers from the Democratic, Libertarian and Green parties and paid petition circulators are collecting signatures for a ballot referendum in November, 2014, that may allow voters to revoke the new law. Julie Erfle, the widow of slain policeman, Nick Erfle, is the organization’s head. The group must collect 86,405 valid signatures by the deadline of September 12, 2013. Coalition representatives say they will get twice that number to ensure that the referendum makes the ballot. That would put HB2305 on hold until November, 2014. 

“We’re on track to get the required number of signatures we need. It’s a safe bet it’s going to be on the ballot,” says Martin Quezada, state representative from District 29.

“It’s a conservative tactic to keep new voters, mostly Latino, from voting. They don’t like the direction that these new voters are voting in,” he says. 

However, Quezada warns of a well-funded opposition campaign by Republicans if the referendum makes the ballot. “There’s going to be a big push back. The Republicans really want this. Two Republican committees are ready to oppose the referendum,” Quezada adds. 

One of the Republican groups Quezada is talking about is the Protect Our Secret Ballot political action committee. Its chairwoman is Senator Reagan. She told Capitol Media Service that she wants to focus on just one issue: Community groups picking up ballots from voters. “Voting is a personal thing,” she said, “[Ballots] are not supposed to be rounded up like a bunch of playing cards.”

Frank Camacho, state Democratic Party communications director, says Republicans believe that Libertarians cost them two congressional seats in Arizona, CD1 and CD 9, by siphoning votes from GOP candidates. He says that’s why HB2305 increases the number of signatures needed by small-party candidates on nominating petitions. 

In addition, he says, the party and community-based non-profits have increased participation, especially of Latino voters, by registering them on the Permanent Early Voting List. A campaign tactic, used since 2010, has been for organizations such as Promise Arizona and Mi Familia Vota to pick up a voter’s ballot and return it to county election headquarters. HB2305 forbids that practice and makes it a felony for any volunteers to pick up and return a ballot, Camacho adds. 

“HB2305 is nothing more than a cynical attempt by Republicans to manipulate the outcome of elections by making it more difficult to vote in Arizona. It takes the power of the ballot box away from the voter and delivers it into the hands of petty politicians. The debate over HB2305 is not about election reform but about protecting an individual’s right to vote,” Camacho says. 

Libertarian activist, Barry Hess, has stated publicly that the Republican power play has created a “political war” between his party and the Republicans. Hess says Republicans are miscalculating if they believe that wiping out Libertarian candidates will lead to victory. That’s why his party membership is joining with Democrats to send HB2305 down in flames, he says. 

The HB2305 referendum would create another battle front for Republicans, political observers say, because they may already have to worry about a potential Medicaid referendum initiated by the party’s own far right wing. The opportunity to vote on HB 2305 will attract more Latinos and Libertarians to hit the polls next year when all statewide offices are up for grabs.

A late-night attempt at a power grab by Republicans would lead to a politically self-inflicted wound that could pain Arizona’s ruling party in succeeding elections.

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This Article appears on the August 2013 issue of LPM under LP Journal

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