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Democrats, advocates raise red flags over GOP election bills

Raquel Teran, Arizona state director for Mi Familia Vota, said Legislature's focus should be on voter education. (Photo by AJ Vicens/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX -- Republican lawmakers' attempts to address the myriad problems that came up during last fall's election are being met with skepticism from Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups.

The bills getting the most attention would purge some voters from the permanent early voting list, push up deadlines for returning early ballots and add additional steps for volunteers to collect others' ballots. Critics including state Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, say the bills are designed to counter growing minority voting participation.

"The only problem that we're fixing here is that participation is too high here in the state of Arizona, that minorities are coming out in larger numbers than ever before," Gallardo said.

Gallardo and Sens. Jack Jackson Jr., D-Window Rock, and Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, the Senate minority leader, sent a letter Monday asking the Department of Justice to review the legislation as it moves from the Senate to the House.

"None of the established minority-voting advocacy groups were included in the drafting process and minority groups have not been asked for input," the letter said. "While we acknowledge that our vote counting system needs to be streamlined, changes cannot come at the expense of anyone's ability to vote."

Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, who chairs the Senate's Elections Committee, said attacks on the bills are political theater.

"What I think we've gotten to at this point is it's not about policy, it's not about making the bill better, it's about making press," Reagan said. "I don't feel (the bills) disenfranchise voters. They keep saying that, and I keep asking to show me where it disenfranchises people."

Reagan pointed to SB 1003, which she authored, as a prime example. The bill would require a voter to sign the outside of an early ballot envelope and specifically identify the person he or she gave permission to submit the ballot.

"Why is it such a big deal to say that the voter can designate if they want someone to drop something off?" Reagan said. "If you have people going around and collecting ballots without voters approval, that should not be allowed."

Landrum Taylor said the problem with SB 1003 is that it is attempting to fix a problem that doesn't exist.

"Typically when you're going forward with a measure like this you are fixing something," she said. "So if there were multiple cases of fraud coming forward then you could understand having to take drastic measures of this nature, but we have not identified or seen any of those cases."

Raquel Teran, Arizona state director for Mi Familia Vota, said Legislature's focus should be on voter education. Her organization mobilizes volunteers, many of them young people from the community, to encourage Latino participation in the electoral process.

SB 1261, which would remove voters from the permanent early voting list if they haven't voted in the last two elections, would significantly affect Latinos, she said. In 2008 there were about 95,000 Latinos counties' lists, she said. By 2012 that number was 225,000.

"You don't have to register to get a gun but you have to register to collect someone's ballot? What is going to be next?" she said. "What is going to be the next step for them to make it more difficult for people to vote?"

Reagan said she's met with every group that wanted to discuss election legislation and concerns. She provided Cronkite News Service access to her calendar, which shows meetings with the Arizona Advocacy Network, the League of Women Voters and Mi Familia Vota, among others.

But Brendan Walsh, executive director of Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy, a civil rights and civic participation group, said the meetings all came after the legislation was mostly written. Even then, most of the established Latino voting advocacy groups weren't included, he said.

Walsh said the proposed bills will have the net effect of reducing voter participation.

"Right now these bills are attacking, I think, the effectiveness of largely volunteer organizations to encourage people in their communities to vote," he said.

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