Arizona ballot initiative aims to protect voting rights

Voting rights advocates on Feb. 8 announced plans for a sweeping Arizona ballot initiative they say would "protect the freedom to vote" from Republican lawmakers pushing to remake voting laws based on false claims of fraud in the 2020 election.

The wide-ranging initiative would roll back recent changes approved by Republican lawmakers to voting and initiative laws. It would also automatically update voter rolls using driver’s license records and eliminate registration deadlines, allowing people to register and vote on the same day.

"This is a big moment for our democracy, and it demands a big response," Joel Edman, co-director of the Arizona Democracy Resource Center, one of the progressive groups leading the initiative, told reporters in virtual news conference.

The proposal comes with Arizona at the center of the threat to faith in democracy.

Dozens of election bills have been introduced this year, including some aiming to significantly curtail early voting and mail balloting. State Senate Republicans oversaw a partisan review of the 2020 election conducted by supporters of former President Donald Trump who made a wide variety of false or misleading claims suggesting there were problems with the election.

President Joe Biden won Arizona with the narrowest margin of any state in 2020, becoming just the second Democrat to win here since Harry Truman in 1948. The state is likely to be a battleground for control of the U.S. Senate this year and for the presidency in 2024.

The new initiative, called Arizonans for Fair Elections, is one of several ballot measures voters may decide in November. Republican lawmakers are collecting signatures for an initiative that would require identification with mail-in ballots. Another proposal filed last week would require voters who deliver a mail-in ballot to a polling place to have their identity verified by poll workers, among a variety of other changes.

Republicans pushing for changes say they’re reacting to a lack of confidence in election results and looking to eliminate opportunities for cheating. They bristle at the charge that their efforts are designed to suppress Democratic votes.

The progressive initiative announced Tuesday aims to go around the Legislature, which is elected by the people to represent their interests, said Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican and a leading sponsor of GOP election bills. If the public was crying out for same-day voter registration or other changes, lawmakers would do it, she argued.

"It’s sad. It’s actually desperate. They can’t win at the Legislature so they’re going to go to the ballot and mislead the public," said Ugenti-Rita, who is running for secretary of state.

The measure would reinstate the Permanent Early Voting List, which allows voters who sign up to automatically get a ballot in the mail before every election. Republicans last year voted to purge the list of people who fail to vote for two consecutive election cycles — a bill sponsored by Ugenti-Rita.

It would automatically update voter rolls when people sign up for a state identification card, such as a driver’s license, or change their address. It would make in-person early voting available until the day before the election and create "vote centers" statewide, allowing voters to cast a ballot anywhere in their county instead of a designated precinct polling place.

The measure also would prohibit legislators from overturning the decision of voters in presidential elections, limit gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, and increase funding for candidates who use the state’s public campaign financing system known as Clean Elections.

"Disenfranchising voters is their objective," said Signa Oliver, who is working on the proposed initiative. "Our objective is to protect every citizen’s freedom to vote."

If voters approve, lawmakers would be extremely limited in any changes they could make. Two-thirds of the House and Senate would have to sign off, and any changes must further the intent of the initiative.

Proponents need to collect 237,645 signature from registered voters by July 7 to qualify for the 2022 ballot. They proposed a similar initiative for the 2020 ballot but abandoned it when the pandemic hit because of health concerns with collecting signatures in person.

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