PHOENIX - Arizona’s top election official asked lawmakers Wednesday to let counties run elections entirely by mail later this year if it’s necessary to protect election workers and voters from the coronavirus outbreak.
As public health officials recommend increasing restrictions on social interactions, Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said the state needs to “prepare now for any eventuality.” About 80 percent of Arizonans have voted by mail in recent elections.
"It is vital that we build more flexibility into the law - even if only on a temporary basis - to allow elections officials to adapt to the circumstances on the ground to best protect voters' health while also preserving the ability to exercise their right to vote," Hobbs wrote to legislative leaders.
Her request comes a day after thousands of voters cast a ballot in the Democratic presidential primary amid extra sanitation precautions. Some voters wore masks and gloves and took pains to maintain the recommended six feet of separation between people, while poll workers were instructed to regularly clean surfaces.
But Hobbs’ request faces an uncertain fate in the Republican-controlled Legislature. GOP Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who leads the Senate committee overseeing election measures, said she and her Republican colleagues find it unnecessary.
“If they want to receive it by mail they can,” said Ugenti-Rita, who is widely expected to challenge Hobbs in the 2022 election. “So why would you mandate it?”
Senate President Karen Fann, a Republican, said she wouldn’t push an all-mail election bill unless it had little opposition
“If this is a huge divisive issue between my members – and I’m talking Rs and Ds alike, then no, I probably won’t do it,” Fann said.
Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who oversees the county’s mail voting operation, last week said he would mail a ballot to nearly 200,000 voters who hadn’t already received one, even though it’s not allowed by law. He was quickly slapped down by a judge.
Tuesday’s election covered only the Democratic presidential primary. The primary for all other offices is in August, and the general election is in November. Some local governments and school districts can also hold elections over the summer, though they already have authority to request an all-mail election.
If lawmakers approve Hobbs’ request, the ultimate decision about whether to run an all-mail election would be left to the elected boards of supervisors in each of Arizona’s 15 counties.
Hobbs said care would need to be taken to avoid disenfranchising tribal members who don’t have regular mail delivery.
Two former Navajo Nation elections directors, Edison Wauneka and Murray Lee, said an all-mail election could be conducted fairly as long as election authorities ensure people are fully informed of the change and those who don’t speak English get information in the Navajo language.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s an all-mail election as long as we inform the voters,” said Wauneka, who is now the Apache County recorder and a member of the Navajo Nation council.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie contributed.