ELECTIONS

'The answer is no': Mohave County judge rejects Republican Party of Arizona lawsuit to end early voting

Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic
People arrive to cast their early vote in the 2020 election at an early ballot location at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, Ariz., on Oct. 28, 2020.

There's nothing unconstitutional about Arizona's early voting law, a Mohave County judge determined Monday.

The ruling, knocking down a lawsuit from the Republican Party of Arizona, is a win for the state's election officials and Arizona voters who use the early-voting system, a vast majority of the electorate. And it's another setback for the state party, which has argued the practice violates the Arizona Constitution's requirement for ballot secrecy.

Mohave County Superior Court Judge Lee Jantzen boiled down the essence of the case in his four-page ruling to this: "Is the Arizona Legislature prohibited by the Arizona Constitution from enacting voting laws that include no-excuse mail-in voting? The answer is no."

He noted that the no-excuses mail-in voting that lawmakers approved in 1991 provides protections for secrecy. For example, the ballot return envelopes are designed in a way to ensure the voter's choices are not visible. In addition, the envelopes are "tamper evident" so election workers can notice if someone has tried to open the ballot envelope.

Jantzen denied the Republican Party's case as well as its request for a preliminary injunction that would have blocked almost all early voting for the Nov. 8 general election. That would have required millions of Arizona voters to obtain their ballot at the polls and cast it there.

The lawsuit did not seek any change for the upcoming Aug. 2 primary election. Ballots were already printed for that election and early voting begins July 6.

The ruling is likely to be appealed. Alexander Kolodin, who represented the state GOP, suggested as much Monday. 

"We recognize a ruling in our favor on the case is a lot to ask from a Superior Court judge," Kolodin said, adding that asking a single judge to overturn an entire system is a hard sell.

An appeal, which would go before a multi-judge panel at the state Court of Appeals or the state Supreme Court, is being "carefully considered," Kolodin said.

Hobbs, Richer praise judge's ruling

Elections officials, who defended the lawsuit, praised the ruling. Attorney General Mark Brnovich was dismissed from the case by mutual agreement between himself and GOP party officials, leaving the defense to Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and the county recorders. 

"Not only is voting by mail constitutional, it’s safe, secure, and has been widely used by Arizona voters for decades," Hobbs said in a statement.

Stephen Richer, who as Maricopa County Recorder, runs elections in the state's largest county, said the ruling shows the strength of Arizona's judicial system.

"I think we have a very strong state court system and federal court system," Richer said. Plus, he said, the system allows for appeals.

Both Richer and Hobbs said they will continue to work to ensure this year's elections are run properly.

Jantzen presided over a 2 1/2-hour hearing Friday in the case. The state GOP and its chairwoman, Kelli Ward, turned to the court in her home county after the state Supreme Court declined to take jurisdiction, noting it needed to originate in a lower court.

In his ruling, Jantzen made it clear t the lawsuit had nothing to do with the ongoing turmoil over the results of the 2020 election in Arizona, where nearly 90% of the ballots cast were by the early voting system.

"It is important to note what this case is not about allegations of fraud in the voting process," he wrote. "It is not about politics. It is not even about whether the parties believe mail-in voting is appropriate. It is about one thing: Is the Arizona Legislature prohibited by the Arizona Constitution from enacting voting laws that include no-excuse mail-in voting?"

Arizona has allowed voters to cast ballots early since 1991. The system has grown in popularity, with nearly 90% of the ballots in the 2020 election cast early — whether by mail, at drop boxes, early vote centers or by dropping off the ballot at the polls on election day.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

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