By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- The former chairman of the Navajo County Democratic Party is spearheading an effort to get voters to overturn three changes in election laws approved this year by the Republican-controlled legislature in the wake of Joe Biden's victory over Donald Trump.
The measures crafted by Eric Kramer include:
- Changes to what until now has been a "permanent early voting list'' that stop the early ballots from coming if people don't use them in two prior election cycles, even if they decided instead to go directly to polling places;
- Prohibiting state and local election officials from obtaining outside grants for voter registration and election administration even if they believes they are not being properly funded;
- Requiring new ballots to be encoded with special anti-fraud protections and unique numbers and codes, a measure that also strips Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs of her power to defend election law challenges.
If he gets 118,823 valid signatures on any of the three new laws by Sept. 28 that will block each one from taking effect the following day as currently scheduled. Instead, the measures would remain on hold until voters get a chance in November 2022 to decide whether they like -- and want to ratify -- what lawmakers did or whether they disapprove.
Kramer acknowledged that he doesn't have the same extensive network of educators and political activists that are leading separate efforts to refer changes in tax laws to the 2022 ballot. But Kramer told Capitol Media Services he believes there are enough active Democrats who are upset with what he says are efforts by the legislature to undermine voting rights to get the signatures needed by the deadline.
The common thread for all the measures Kramer hopes to refer to voters are that some foes see them as a way of giving Republicans an edge in future elections, particularly after Biden beat Trump in Arizona last year by just 10,457 votes.
It starts with that permanent early voting list. Once someone signs up, he or she remains on the list as long as that person is registered to vote.
But Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, said those lists are now clogged with people who apparently are not interested in using those early ballots. She also said that sending early ballots to people who may not want them creates the chance they could be used fraudulently by someone else.
Her new law says someone who does not use an early ballot at all in two successive election cycles -- meaning a primary, a general, and a primary and a general two years later -- is sent a notice asking if they continue to be interested. If they do not respond, they are removed from the list.
"Nobody responds to these government mailings,'' Kramer said. "They're not much of a safeguard.''
Ugenti-Rita said those removed from the list can reapply. And she noted they retain their right to go to a polling place.
During testimony on the measure, Democrats said it is crafted in a way to harm low-efficacy voters, those who may turn out only when there is a race of interest.
That is what happened in 2020. Foes estimated that had the law been in effect it would have denied early ballots in 2020 to more than 100,000 people who chose not to use them in 2016 and 2018.
Politics was in play when lawmakers approved the legislation to bar any state, city, town, county, school district or other public body that conducts or administers elections from receiving or spending private monies for preparing for, running or conducting an election, including registered voters.
Exhibit No. 1 for Republicans was more than $6 million that nine Arizona counties got last year from the Center for Tech and Civil Life. And CTCL reported that $400 million of what it gave out nationally came from Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
Backers argued that allows those with money to encourage greater turnout in communities where their favored candidate or party is more likely to win.
But Jennifer Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, pointed out that four of the nine counties have Republican majorities, four have more Democrats and voter registration is close to evenly split in Maricopa County. And in each case, she said, the grants, including how the money would be spent, were approved by county supervisors.
In an email, Navajo County Recorder Michael Sample said the cash his county got was used to provide voting materials in languages other than English. And Sample said it allowed the county to purchase two mobile voting outreach trailers to do both registration and serve as early voting polling places in rural areas where polling centers were closed due to COVID-19.
Kramer also derided GOP lawmakers for saying this kind of outside funding is tainted even as the Arizona Senate has accepted an undetermined amount of cash from so-far undisclosed sources to conduct an audit of the 2020 election.
The final referendum involves two sections of the same bill.
First are provisions promoted by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, as creating a more secure ballot with things like holograms and inks that change color when heated.
But Kramer worries about other things in the amendment including "stealth numbering in ultraviolet, infrared to taggant inks,'' the last being detectable only with special equipment.
The same legislation also seeks unique bar codes or QR codes -- those square codes that show up on some items to provide more information -- that are supposed to be accessible only to the voter and that tracks the ballot as it is processed.
"That is actually going to compromise ballot privacy,'' Kramer said. "These people that are going around and conducting audits and so forth would be able to figure out who voted for who.''
But Borrelli said the only people who would know who gets what numbers are the voters themselves, allowing them to go to a web site and find if their ballot was counted. And he said unique numbers, generated at random, ensure the same ballot is not scanned and counted more than once "as has been alleged in other states.''
Also in the same measure is a provision giving the attorney general the "sole authority'' to direct how the state defends any lawsuits challenging election laws rather than the secretary of state who is the chief elections officer.
But Kramer argued this is mere politics, noting that the Republican-controlled legislature made that change temporary, only until Jan. 2, 2023 -- which just happens to be when Hobbs leaves office.