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Arizona governor's task force clarifies existing 75-foot protected zone around polling places also applies to drop boxes

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- A special gubernatorial task force is recommending changes in Arizona law to prevent voter intimidation of those who choose to deposit their ballots into drop boxes.

But the plan, unveiled Tuesday, doesn't include any of the things that a federal judge concluded last year are necessary to ensure voters are not harassed. Instead, it simply seeks to clarify that the existing 75-foot protected zone around polling places also applies to drop boxes.
And panel members specifically sidestepped the thorny legal question, raised in a new lawsuit, of whether unmonitored drop boxes are even legal. All the report says is that the proposal would not change their legal status.
There were other recommendations, all unanimously approved, ranging from allowing registered voters who move right before Election Day to cast a ballot in the county where they are now located so they are not disenfranchised, to providing more incentives to get people to volunteer as poll workers like free child care.
But one drew a dissenting vote from Sen. Ken Bennett: automatic restoration of voting rights once a convicted felon has completed his or her prison term.
Existing Arizona law allows individuals to seek to have their civil rights restored. But the majority, in adopting the recommendation, said people are often unaware of the process or are unable to navigate it.
Bennett, a Prescott Republican, said the proposal is flawed because it is based solely on release from prison.
"They can be released from incarceration a long time before their probation ends,'' he said. Bennett said only after all conditions of the sentence are met -- including paying any fines and financially compensating victims -- should someone get back the right to vote.
And he said it doesn't matter even if it takes the person years to be released from probation or fulfill all financial obligations.
Bennett, one of two lawmakers on the panel and the only Republican, also took a swat at Gov. Katie Hobbs who is the chair the task force she formed. Instead, Hobbs gave only brief remarks at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting and then left, leaving it to Helen Purcell, her co-chair and former Maricopa County recorder, to run the meeting.
And he pointed out that the meeting, following months of smaller "working groups,'' lasted just 45 minutes.
"I can think of few things more important than election integrity,'' Bennett said. And he said if Hobbs could not spare the 25 minutes starting at 1 p.m. Tuesday the meeting could have been reset to work around her schedule.
Gubernatorial press aide Christian Slater would not respond to Bennett's comments.
The questions around voter intimidation stem from activities during the 2022 general election by a group called Clean Elections USA -- not associated with the Citizens Clean Elections Commission -- to monitor drop boxes. Their activities were predicated on unproven claims that "mules'' were stuffing the boxes with multiple ballots, something already illegal under Arizona law.
But evidence presented at a federal court hearing showed they were not simply watching. The group also took photos and videos of voters and their vehicles and posted them online, with captions suggesting that state laws were being violated. And some monitors were visibly armed and wore tactical gear.
All that resulted in U.S. District Court Judge Michael Liburdi issuing an order that:
- Prohibited anyone from taking videos of those depositing their ballots, even if the people taking the pictures are outside a 75-foot perimeter around drop boxes;
- Barred posting of any videos or personal information on people, including their physical description or even a license plate number or make or model of their car, that suggests these individuals that those pictured are violating state laws against "ballot harvesting''; and
- Requiring anyone openly carrying a weapon or wearing body armor to remain at least 250 feet from any drop box.
Those restrictions, which applied only to members of Clean Elections USA, expired after the election.
And none of that is in the task force recommendations. Instead, the panel proposes only that state law be amended to spell out that the laws that make it a crime to interfere with a voter within 75 feet of a polling place also apply to anyone depositing a ballot at a drop box.
"Restrictions that apply within the 75-foot limit are already well known to voters and
would be the best place to avoid confusion,'' the report says. "The impact of this proposal would be to help prevent voter intimidation, confusion, and future escalations where drop boxes are located.''
Purcell said that recommendation does resolve "part of the problem'' that arose in 2022.
"Some of those people were not 75 feet away from the drop boxes,'' she said. "They were almost right next to it.''
But Purcell conceded that at least part of the reason the recommendations did not go farther was political: Any change in laws about protected zones around drop boxes would need to be approved by the Legislature.
"We tried to come up with the best thing we thought would gain bipartisan support,'' she said.
And Rep. Laura Terech of Phoenix, the Democratic lawmaker on the panel, called it "a very good start.''
"It provides law enforcement with the guidance they need to ensure that everyone is able to cast their ballot freely, without intimidation,'' she said. But Terech said she is waiting to see what kinds of activities occur around ballot boxes in 2024.
Bennett, however, already has concluded more is needed.
"There should not be voter intimidation within or without 75 feet of either polling locations or drop boxes,'' he said. And Bennett, a former secretary of state, said it has to be something more than a law that is based on distance.
"Intimidating voters at 76 feet is not acceptable either,'' he said.
Another issue the committee wants addressed is creating and expanding the standards for equipment used in elections.
Equipment that actually tallies votes already is subject to testing and certification requirements. But the report acknowledges there aren't the same standard for "tabulation-adjacent equipment,'' things like the e-pollbooks used at polling places to check in voters, voter registration systems and ballot-on-demand printers.
But members of the panel also concluded that the problem -- to the extent there is one -- may not be as large as some people believe.
"The first challenge is a perception issue based on the proliferation and spread of mis-, mal- and disinformation,'' the report says.
It contains no names or specific allegations. But Republican Kari Lake has been trying to overturn the results of her loss in the 2022 gubernatorial race by alleging, among other things, that on-site ballot printers used in Maricopa County were deliberately sabotaged to print out ballots in the wrong size.
Secretary of State Adrian Fontes said there are real security issues that constantly need to be addressed. Consider, he said, foreign actors like Russia, Iran, China and North Korea are always trying to "bust into our systems'' and take advantage of any possible weakness.
"It would be foolish of us not to try to improve our security profile across every single possible point of vulnerability that exists,'' said Fontes, a Democrat. And he said people want to be sure election officials are doing what they can to secure every part of the system.
But Fontes said there's another side of that.
"Where we don't have problems, people are lying about the fact that we have vulnerabilities,'' he said, saying there are "folks who choose to lie about our system for whatever advantage they want to take, whether it's financial or political advantage.''
"Those are the folks that are acting immorally,'' Fontes said. "And you can't regulate your way out of that.''
Bennett, however, said a real problem remains.
"I think there's a significant number of voters in Arizona who are still skeptical about our elections and their results,'' he said.
The panel also suggested that lawmakers consider repealing a 2022 law that requires a recount of any election where the margin of difference is 0.5% or less. The prior law said only races of 0.1% difference would trigger a recount
Purcell said the problem with that is it will trigger recounts in more races. And that, she said, will create time constraints for counties, both in preparing the general election ballot after the primary and in meeting the deadlines in federal law to certify the results of the presidential election.
But Bennett said such a repeal is likely dead on arrival at the Capitol.
On X and Threads: @azcapmedia