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Maricopa analysis: Early-voting plan would ax 20K from list

PHOENIX -- Maricopa County officials said that about 20,000 registered voters would be removed from the permanent early-voting list under proposed legislation aimed at reducing the number of provisional ballots.

No particular demographic group would be hit harder than another, according to an analysis by the Maricopa County Elections Department.

Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, developed SB 1261 with input from county election officials. As approved by the Senate, it would remove people from permanent early- voting lists if they fail to vote in four consecutive federal elections and fail to respond to notice from the county elections office.

"No other other state that I found who has a permanent early voting list has no ability to clean up their list," Reagan said.

The bill, which hadn't received a vote by the full House as of early May, is a response to the November 2012 general election that saw Arizonans cast more than 180,000 provisional ballots, a record. The state drew national attention for its high provisional rate and the perceived delays in counting all the ballots.

More than half of Maricopa County's 122,000 provisional ballots were cast by voters who were on the permanent early-voting list but wound up at polls anyway, according to county election officials. Many of those voters, they said, reported not knowing they were supposed to cast early ballots or not receiving ballots.

The bill has been described as discriminatory by some Democrats and civil rights groups, who have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to evaluate it if it passes.

Cronkite News Service analyzed precinct-level demographic and voter registration data with the county's estimates of affected early voters by precincts. As with the county's analysis, it found no statistical connection between early voters who would be removed removed from the list and a precinct's rate of voting-age ethnic minorities.

Of the 20,000 people who would be removed from the list, more than half are registered Democrats: 11,512, versus 8,389 Republicans.

Seven states including Arizona and the District of Columbia allow voters to join a permanent early voting list, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Each of those states has some policy for removal, ranging from failing to vote in one election (Colorado) to failing to vote in eight consecutive election cycles (Utah).

Tammy Patrick, Maricopa County Elections Department's federal compliance officer, said voters on the early voting list who don't vote their early ballots are a burden on the system.

"The administration of putting a million people, or hundreds of thousands of people, onto an early voting list for every election cycle was incredibly costly," Patrick said.

Each provisional ballot costs between $5 and $6, she said.

Reagan said her goal is cleaning up the lists, not targeting any group.

"The No. 1 district that would have the most people eligible to be removed from the permanent early voting list is District 23 -- that's Scottsdale and Fountain Hills, that's my district," she said.

State Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said he thinks SB 1261 would hit minority groups harder. He also said it's fundamentally unfair.

"This creates an avenue in which voters can be taken off without even signing a document saying they wanted to be removed," Gallardo said.

Gallardo, who worked in the Maricopa County Elections Department for 14 years before going to the state Legislature, said the county should send cards to voters who didn't cast a ballot and ask them if they want to be removed.

"That way you're not taking anyone off the permanent early ballot list that doesn't want to be taken off," he said.

Randy Parraz, head of Citizens for a Better Arizona and a critic of SB 1261, said the fact that current demographic data doesn't suggest minorities are disproportionately affected doesn't alleviate his concerns.

"Regardless of where the impact is, I still think it's bad policy," he said. "I think it's disrespectful to voters to sign them up on a permanent early vote list and change the rules on them without their input. I think it's wrong."

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