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Updated Feb 5, 2013 - 6:14 pm

Bill changing early voting rules debated

PHOENIX -- A bill allowing county election officials to remove people from the early voting list if they ignored a letter after not voting in consecutive primary and general elections has passed its first hurdle in the state Senate, even though its sponsor acknowledged the measure was flawed and needed major revisions.

The bill is designed to help cut the number of provisional ballots cast at the polls, which complicate the vote count and lead to long delays in getting results.

The bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Michele Reagan passed the Senate elections committee Tuesday on a party-line vote, with three Democrats on the committee opposed.

Representatives from voter rights groups and the League of Women Voters of Arizona testified against the bill as it was written. They argued its provision for removing voters from the state's permanent early voting list would disenfranchise voters.

``I don't understand why our first solution to deal with this problem is to purge voters- why would that be our first solution?'' asked Monica Sandschafer, executive director of the advocacy group Arizona Center for Empowerment.

Those voters removed from the early voting rolls will still be able to vote at their precinct, but they won't receive an early ballot in the mail.

Hundreds of thousands of provisional ballots were cast in November when Arizonans who were mailed early ballots showed up at the polls seeking to vote. Their ballots held up the vote count.

The bill also makes it a Class 6 felony for someone to make changes to a voter registration card. That provision also drew fire from voter rights advocates who said it didn't differentiate between a registration volunteer making a commonsense addition like adding a zip code from someone actually altering the card.

Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, voted against the measure, saying Reagan hadn't consulted with groups like the League of Women Voters that champion voter rights. He also noted there are two years before the next general election and no need to rush.

``I don't believe we need to push this particular bill through this session, not with so many issues brought forward,'' Gallardo said.

Reagan said she believes the bill's flaws can be fixed with amendments on the Senate floor. She cited changes to the class of crime that would give prosecutors and judges more sentencing discretion than a Class 6 felony, which can't be reduced to a misdemeanor. And she said she was open to extending the time before someone is removed from the early voting list.

Two other election-related bills also advanced Tuesday.

One moves the date for filing citizen's initiative signatures to May 1 from four months before the election. That gives the secretary of state more time to certify the signatures and for legal action from opponents or supporters to make their way through the courts before ballots have to be at the printer. A second requires a person or group proposing an initiative to file with the secretary of state before they file the actual initiative.

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