A few weeks back, this here blog gave Councilman Kozachik some grief for what amounted to thinking out loud about the possibility of skipping Tucson’s 2013 election so the city could save money and to spare voters from “election fatigue.” Of course, it turned out that this was never a real proposal, as the councilman was quick to point out once folks started to take it seriously.
State Senator Michelle Reagan (R-Scottsdale) is similarly concerned about the expense and trouble of having elections, and her misguided proposal is only a little less disturbing than the councilman’s. Unlike the councilman, however, she is absolutely serious.
A two week delay in vote counting arising from Maricopa County’s inability to deal with the large number of mail-in ballots during the 2012 election made headlines all over the country and was yet another national embarrassment for Arizona. While most of us would think that the solution has to do with staffing or technology at county elections departments, there are others, like Reagan, who believe that the real problem is that too many people are voting. She has proposed cutting down these numbers by making it a class 5 felony to turn in someone else’s mail-in ballot.
The Senator’s initial stated reason for her bill was to address the work load that all these mail-in ballots cause. But it quickly became clear that the bill was about something else. Invoking typical practiced Republican umbrage, she claimed that she was “shocked” that groups like Mi Familia Vota were taking “laundry basket[s] full of ballots” to polling places. She further played at being dumbfounded that the issue was so “divisive.” On this point, she was either insincere or has not been paying attention to the national debate over Republican-led efforts to limit voting across the country.
It is almost goes without saying that this is really about the results of the last election. Vote-by-mail ballots accounted for the margins of victory for 3 of the 5 Democrats Arizona sent to Congress. Absentee ballots famously saved Senator Barry Goldwater’s career in 1980, but those days are clearly over. Now that vote-by-mail ballots are an integral part of the Democrat’s increasingly effective get-out-the-vote machinery, they are considered a problem.
Reagan’s proposal presents difficulties well beyond partisan considerations. Under this bill, staff or volunteers at a retirement community, for example, would be prohibited from collecting ballots from residents who cannot make it to the polling place themselves. Likewise, someone who works for a non-profit that assists disabled people would also be prevented from helping his or her clients. It would be difficult to call these “unintended consequences,” since limiting the ability of citizens to vote seems to be exactly what is intended.
Strangely enough, as Senator Steve Gallardo (D-Maryvale), the legislature’s leading expert on election issues, points out, Arizona state law allows a voter to bring any individual, not just a relative or someone who shares a residence, into the polling booth to assist in completing the ballot. It would seem that there is really little functional difference between this and handing your mail-in ballot to your neighbor to the polling place.
Nonetheless, though the bill goes way too far, there is a real possibility for fraud and abuse in the vote-by-mail system. Senate Democrats are working on amendments to narrow the bill to address these potential problems, by imposing a time limit on how long an individual can hold on to a ballot, for example. The degree to which Senator Reagan and the Republican majority entertain these fixes will be a test of their sincerity in this regard. Of course, these issues have largely not been part of the discussion, beyond Reagan’s free-floating outrage regarding the sanctity of the vote.
What has been part of the discussion is the fact that organizations like Mi Familia Vota have been far too effective in helping certain communities to vote, namely Mexican-Americans in low-income neighborhoods. The fact that this has been so central to the discussion so far tends to imply that this is largely about who has been voting, rather than concerns about process.
There was a similar effort to attack the vote-by-mail system in 2011. In that case, the sponsor, Senator Don Shooter (R-Yuma) was quite honest about the fact that his bill was about his annoyance that organized labor was turning out votes against him. However, it was shot down by the U.S. Justice Department as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Given this precedent, there is no reason to think that this proposal would not meet a similar fate.