Sun, July 21

Lawsuits loom over early voting restrictions

PHOENIX -- Claiming the measures target minorities, some groups are threatening to sue if lawmakers adopt new restrictions on early voting and who can take someone else's ballot to the polls.

John Loredo said Monday the two measures, likely up for House vote this week, violate the federal Voting Rights Act. That law precludes states from altering any voting laws in a way that puts new restrictions in the path of minority voting.

And Monica Sandschafer of One Arizona, said the two bills are no accident.

"This is a direct response to the Latino vote,' she said at a Monday press conference at the Capitol.

But Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, the sponsor of both measures, said they are a legitimate response to real problems with voting.

And Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who serves as the state's chief election officer, said any charge of partisan or political motives rings hollow. He pointed out that the changes are supported by all 15 county recorders, eight of whom are Democrats.

Two measures are at issue.

Existing law allows individuals to sign up for a "permanent early voter list.' That means they automatically get their ballots in the mail ahead of each election.

They can choose to mail them back, drop them directly at the polls or give them to someone else to drop off on election day.

SB 1261 would say that someone on that list who does not cast an early ballot two election cycles in a row will no longer get an early ballot unless he or she mails back a card requesting continuation.

And SB 1003, which is still in flux, will limit who can take someone else's ballot to the polls. Anyone else handling the ballot would be guilty of a crime.

Bennett said the first is designed to deal with problems last year when more than 170,000 individuals who were on that early voting list instead showed up at the polls without that early ballot.

Since there was no record at the polling place of whether they had mailed their early ballots, they were forced to vote "provisional' ballots. Bennett said that delayed getting final results.

The problem was complicated with people turning in large numbers of early ballots on election day.

Bennett said SB 1261 is designed to deal more than with the election-day hassles.

"Many people told the counties when they had to vote a provisional ballot this year, 'What? I didn't know I was on that list. I don't want to be on that list. I vote at the polls,' ' Bennett said. He said if they're not casting early ballots -- and they do not return that post card after two elections -- then they should be automatically removed.

Loredo, however, sees something more sinister. He said it was the outreach of voting-rights groups that got more minorities involved, people who are more likely to use early ballots.

Sandschafter said the limit on delivering ballots also is a direct shot at groups like hers which have done a great deal to reach out to and involve minorities in voting.

"Who is Sen. Reagan to tell a voter who that voter can give a ballot to,' she said. "It's pretty paternalistic to tell a voter that if you trust a volunteer that's working with an organization to take your ballot and take it in for you, that you don't get to make that choice.'

That's only partly true.

The legislation would permit voters to sign an affidavit on the early voting envelope designating another specific person to return that ballot. It does say, however, that early ballots cannot be returned by paid employees or volunteers of any political committee or similar group.

Reagan said there's nothing unduly restrictive about that.

"Try to find one other state that lets an individual walk into a polling place with 4,000 ballots,' she said. "It's laughable.'

Loredo said an analysis done by Promise Arizona, one of the groups involved in opposing these two bills, showed that minorities were far more likely to have to vote a provisional ballot than their numbers would otherwise suggest. But Reagan said the legislative district with the largest number people forced to use provisional ballots was her Scottsdale district, a district with a relatively small number of minorities.