Republican lawmakers are moving to effectively strip the word "permanent'' from the laws that allow Arizona voters to enroll in the permanent early voting list.
On a party-line vote, the House Elections Committee agreed Tuesday to prohibit county officials from sending early ballots to those who did not use them during the past two election cycles. That would affect not just those who chose not to vote at all but also those who, for whatever reason, opted instead to cast a ballot on Election Day at a regular polling place.
Senate Bill 1188 would allow — but not require — election officials to send a notice to those on the early voting list before removing their names. People would be able to remain on the list and continue getting an early ballot if they confirm in writing, within 30 days, that they still want them.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said that means the question of whether people get notified before they're removed from the list could depend on which county they live in and the decisions of the specific election officer.
But the larger question for foes is the contention that all this does is throw another hurdle in the path of voters, with some testimony suggesting the law would immediately dump more than 200,000 from the early voting list.
"We think the word 'permanent' should mean something,'' Sandy Bahr, chapter president of the Sierra Club told lawmakers.
Bahr said that voter turnout in Arizona increased sharply in 2018, at least in part due to the effort of many groups seeking to get people to the polls.
"We should be celebrating that and looking for ways to do even better,'' she said, rather than erecting new barriers like this one.
"That's really the last thing we should be doing with something that really is so fundamental to our system of government,'' Bahr said. "Purging people from something called a 'permanent early voting list' is, I have to say, really unconscionable.''
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, was more blunt.
"It would have the effect of massive voter suppression,'' she said, with thousands of people not getting an early ballot in 2020 because of their failure to use the system in 2016 and 2018.
The measure is being pushed by State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale. She said it's simply a matter of keeping the list up to date rather than being crowded with names of people who signed up to get the early ballots in the mail but have chosen not to use them.
"It's about having integrity in the system,'' she said.
Anyway, Ugenti-Rita said, it takes an act of not using the early ballot in four consecutive elections — a primary and general election one year and then a primary and general two years later — to actually wind up in a position of losing the early ballots.
That's not exactly true. The legislation says being dropped from the list depends on someone not casing an early ballot in either the primary or general election for two consecutive years.
Rep. Raquel Teran said that means a political independent who does not vote in primaries can have early voting status placed in jeopardy solely by not using it twice, once in each general election.
Ugenti-Rita said it's not like the loss of early ballot actually disenfranchises anyone, pointing out they remain free to go to the polling place. And they can get reinstated to the early voting list by submitting a new request.
"No one is being harmed,'' she said. "It's good public policy.''
But Jen Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, said her members, the ones who would have to implement the change, are not in favor. She told lawmakers that any decision of whether to remove people from the early voting list should be optional with each county official.
Marson also said that other procedures already used by county recorders ensure that voting records are kept as clean as possible to eliminate those who have died or moved away.
And on a more practical matter, she said that the registration system used by the 13 smaller counties is not set up to kick out the kind of list that Senate Bill 1188 demands to remove people from the early voting rolls.
Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, said he sees the issue in more dollars-and-cents terms.
He figured it costs counties anywhere from $2.50 to $4 to send out each early ballot. Using the estimates from the Arizona Advocacy Network of 200,000 people who haven't used the early ballot they received in two election cycles, Thorpe figures the move would save $500,000 or more.
Anyway, he said, early voting is not a constitutional right but a privilege. And Thorpe said it's not all that difficult to use the ballot — and remain on the list. "You have 30 days to fill out that ballot, drop it in the mail,'' Thorpe said, with the return envelope already having postage on it.