LEGISLATURE

Arizona Republicans propose dozens of bills to change voting and elections following audit, 2020 election

County elections officials respond to claims about the 2020 general election made by Senate Republican contractors Cyber Ninjas, Cyfir and EchoMail during a hearing on Jan. 5, 2022, before the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer (left).
Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

Republican state senators and representatives in Arizona — including election conspiracy theorists and newly sworn-in members — have introduced more than two dozen bills that aim to make significant changes in the state's voting system.

And more are on the way, lawmakers say.

Several appear to stem directly from conspiracies that followed the November 2020 election on issues like ballot paper, ballot drop boxes and alleged sinister acts by election workers.

Many of the lawmakers sponsoring the bills say that former President Trump won the election, a falsehood believed by a majority of Republicans, according to polls. 

Arizona had the narrowest margin in the country for the presidential race, with a difference of 10,457 votes, which put a focus on the state as Trump and Republicans nationwide made wide-ranging, and untrue, allegations about the election before and after it happened.

Backers of that claim have offered no evidence over the past year, including in Arizona, to show that Trump won the election. The Senate audit of the election showed Biden beat Trump in Maricopa County; Trump also lost the popular national vote by about 7 million votes.

The left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, and many Democrats, already view Arizona as part of an "alarming and unprecedented attack on our democracy" due to previously passed bills and the partisan audit of the Maricopa County election.

The newly proposed laws include limiting mail-in ballots, creating criminal penalties for election workers who mishandle ballots, expanding the threshold for automatic recounts, making ballot images publicly available, mandating special paper for ballots, and many other ideas.

Some of the proposals were passed last year as part of the budget, but were thrown out in November when the state Supreme Court ruled that stuffing unrelated policy changes into the state budget was unconstitutional.

The extensive, partisan plans face possible resistance by at least one Republican senator who has criticized claims that Biden didn't win the 2020 election. Republicans have a 16-14 majority in the Senate; losing the vote of one member would doom party-line bills. 

State Sen. Kelly Townsend speaks at a Young Republicans protest against Arizona State University's mask mandate. The protest took place outside the Hayden Library in Tempe on Aug. 13, 2021.

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, the chair of the Senate Committee on Government, will hear all of the new election bills and has broad power over whether they advance. 

Townsend and 29 other former and current lawmakers signed a resolution in December 2020 asking then-Vice President Mike Pence to undo the will of Arizona voters by delaying certification of Biden's victory or accepting an alternate slate of electors for Donald Trump. Congress was debating Arizona's objection to the certification of the presidential race on Jan. 6 when the rioters broke inside the U.S. Capitol.

"I have consistently said as chair of elections and over here in the Senate, that my No. 1 goal is to increase voter confidence. It's not to destroy the democracy," she told The Arizona Republic.

"Nobody's trying to suppress anybody's vote. We want to make it easy for them, but secure."

RelatedCyber Ninjas' lawyer seeks judge's removal from contentious public records case

What is proposed in bills introduced

Townsend herself is so far sponsoring four election bills.

Among other ideas, in Senate Bill 1056 she would make a person who "misplaces" a ballot subject to possible misdemeanor charges. The bill defines "misplaced" ballots as those "not included in the initial tally at a polling place or counting center."

The misplaced ballots also could not be counted, and the bill authorizes affected voters to file an action for damages.

Missing ballots are a consistent allegation by election deniers. Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has shared such claims on social media.

Another Townsend proposal, Senate Bill 1055, criminalizes the failure of companies or people to perform their duties when they contract with elections departments. Townsend said she wants third-party contractors that help conduct elections to be held accountable if they "maliciously" tamper with ballots or fail to reject votes that don't include the voter's signature.

The Senate's audit by its contractor, Cyber Ninjas, alleged potential problems with as many as 50,000 ballots in the 2020 election in Maricopa County. County officials said this month that, in reality, fewer than 100 ballots contained potential evidence of fraud or double-counting out of 2.1 million votes cast in the county.

Townsend also wants the Legislature to put a measure on the ballot that would require people who only vote in federal elections to show proof of citizenship at the polls. That's currently required only for voters in state elections.

Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Flagstaff, who's running for Congress, submitted House Bill 2059, which would raise penalties for certain kinds of election violations, such as electioneering within the 75 foot limit or voting in a county where you don’t reside, from a misdemeanor to a low-level felony.

Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, a super-spreader of 2020 election conspiracies, has put forth bills including: Senate Bill 1133, to prohibit schools and cities from using mail-in ballots for their elections; Senate Bill 1058 to ban drive-through voting and any placement of ballot drop boxes except in official election facilities; and Senate Bill 1027 to establish a Bureau of Elections under the Governor's Office that would investigate election fraud. (Drive-through voting was used at the height of the pandemic for people worried about contracting COVID-19 at the polls.)

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, who has also spread false information about the election and was outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 when rioters stormed the building, is now running for secretary of state, a position that oversees state elections. 

He has submitted House Bill 2023, which would make ballot images available and searchable by voting precinct to the public online after an election. The images wouldn't show information that would identify specific voters. The counties of El Paso and Pueblo, Colorado, and the state of Georgia, began allowing the public to view ballot images from the 2020 election following Republican complaints of voting anomalies.

Finchem also has proposed House Bill 2080, which would mandate hand counts of ballots in all primary and general elections. Arizona voters cast 3.4 million ballots in the November 2020 election. While that might seem to alleviate unfounded concerns by some Republicans that voting machines helped throw the race for Biden, a widely cited 2012 study showed that hand counts could introduce up to a two-percentage-point error in an election.

Both bills have numerous Republican co-sponsors. Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu, submitted a similar bill in the Senate, Senate Bill 1119.

Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, who was first elected in 2018, has House Bill 2041, which would require a set of new fraud countermeasures built into the paper used for ballots, including "watermarking, secure holographic foil, security links, invisible ultraviolet microtext" and other features. It has five co-sponsors including one in the Senate, Borrelli.

The Senate review of the Maricopa County election found that "eight or nine" types of paper were used for ballots, Biasiucci said. Cyber Ninjas claimed it was 10 types.

"How do we avoid that? How do we keep track? Let's get one source, one paper — hard to counterfeit ... . How do we do little things that bring election integrity back to where it needs to be?" he said.

The idea of counterfeit ballots loomed large for a time in the aftermath of the 2020 election, as in former Trump adviser Roger Stone's claim that he had "absolute incontrovertible evidence of North Korean boats delivering ballots through a harbor in Maine." No such evidence ever emerged.

John Brakey, an elections investigator who worked on the Senate's audit, said in May that auditors were looking for bamboo fibers to prove or debunk the claim of ballots from Asia inserted into Arizona's election.

In its report to the senate, Cyber Ninjas recommended the use of paper with watermarks and other security features, and the release of ballot images.

Election-related bills multiply

The list of election-related bills grew daily in the new legislative session's first week.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, submitted nine bills, most of which place restrictions on voters.

The bills, which all have co-sponsors, would prohibit ballot drop boxes, same-day voter registration, and voting centers, among other things. Hoffman not only signed the December resolution calling for the rejection of the state's electors, but also signed on as one of 11 fake electors who tried to give Arizona's 11 electoral votes to Trump.

The next day, Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, announced her sponsorship of House Bill 2270, which would prohibit an election official from leading or belonging to a political action committee.

The bill appears directed at Maricopa County Recorder Steven Richer, a Republican and among the state's biggest critics of the partisan audit. Richer formed a PAC in November to help elect "pro-democracy Republicans."

An election bill Bolick filed in the previous session that drew broad national attention would have allowed the Legislature, by a simple majority vote, to revoke the secretary of state's certification of presidential electors before Inauguration Day.

Bolick, who also is running for secretary of state, said the intent of that bill was misconstrued, and referred to a Feb. 2021 op-ed in the Washington Examiner that she said explained it. In the piece, she proposed that a bipartisan committee would have overseen the process, and Congress would need a two-thirds majority vote "to sign off on our slate of electors."

Bolick claimed that even some Democrats support the idea. She declined to say whether she'd introduce a similar bill this year.

On Thursday, she submitted five other bills that would seek to create a commission to conduct biennial reviews of the election system; ban photography near polls; make collecting the ballots of non-family members a more serious felony; require county officials to approve certain election-related lawsuit settlements; and ensure state election procedure manuals conform to state law.

While many of the bills are coming from those who spread misinformation and falsehoods, even Republican critics of the audit have proposals that would affect elections.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, wants to raise the threshold to trigger automatic recounts of close elections, making such recounts more common. Current law requires recounts when the margin of difference in the votes between two candidates is 0.1% of total votes cast (in elections with more than 25,000 votes) or 200 votes, whichever is lesser.

Ugenti-Rita's SB 1008 would raise that to 0.5% of the votes. That would have caused recounts in a number of 2020 races, including the Biden-Trump race, which had a 0.3% difference in votes.

Ugenti-Rita saw success in election-related bills before the 2020 election: She sponsored a law in 2016 that made "ballot harvesting", or collecting ballots for others except family members, a felony. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in July. She was also the lead sponsor on a bill, signed into law by Ducey, that will remove voters from the state's permanent early voter list if they haven't voted in the past two election cycles.

The recount bill "doesn't relate" to the Trump-Biden race, Ugenti-Rita said, though that race "certainly highlighted that a very close race starts to make people want to make sure everything was done exactly right."

Following a dispute with Townsend last year over an election-related bill, Ugenti-Rita was booed at a Trump rally in July, then excoriated by some of her GOP colleagues for saying the Arizona audit was "botched." After she was sent a threatening email for her stance, Ugenti-Rita resigned her position as the chair of the senate government committee, and Townsend assumed that role.

Townsend told The Republic not to expect a "cat fight" between her and Ugenti-Rita this year, and that as the new chair she'd evaluate all proposals fairly.

1 Republican, many Democratic critics 

Republicans have only a one-vote majority in the House and Senate, meaning a single Republican could make the difference for the fate of any bill. Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, has vowed to block anything that appears radical or clearly related to the false idea that Trump won the election.

He'll reject any bill that bans all mail-in voting, he said, noting that 90% of Arizonans used the vote-by-mail system in 2020, and that the rate is typically 85%.

"Taking away that option — I just don't see the wisdom in that," he said. "It's convenient for folks. I just don't know why we should make it less convenient."

No such bill has dropped yet. Boyer didn't want to discuss most of the other 2022 election bills he would nix, saying he'll study all of them first. He could support a ballot-image bill, he said, as long as voter secrecy was kept intact.

He gave hints of his feelings on a few other bills. He'll have to "think through" the idea of a hand count of ballots, he said. It might introduce human error and take a long time, he said, and the "time factor" could even interfere with the election of a president.

Boyer also took a shot at Rogers' election bureau bill, joking "we need more bureaucracy, obviously," and that it's "the conservative thing to grow government."

Unsurprisingly, Democrats are even more critical of the GOP proposals. 

Adrian Fontes, the former Democratic Maricopa County Recorder who's running for secretary of state, questioned the underlying motive of the bills' authors.

"The rationale for proposing so much unnecessary legislation is to promote and continue the 'big lie,'" he said. "That's the motive behind this. Some people are attaching their political future to a lie."

Still, Fontes said he supports Finchem's ballot-image bill even though he thinks Finchem is a "seditionist and a traitor."

"He's still in the Legislature," Fontes said. "You have to be willing to sit down and speak reasonably to the other side, and this is what leadership is all about."

Sen. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, doesn't think any of the measures are warranted and said it was "unfortunate" that her Republican colleagues have chosen to focus on these bills instead of "solutions for Arizona."

"There's no question in my mind that we are in a fight to protect our democracy," said Terán, who is also the chair of the state Democratic Party. "What happens here in Arizona is critical to the rest of the country."

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Do bills add to election mistrust?

If Republicans really want to restore their constituents' trust in the system, they may be doing the opposite with their myriad election bills, said Tom Collins, executive director of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Committee.

He pointed to six Monmouth University polls over the past year that seem to show the public's confidence in the election system worsen after the Arizona audit: In Nov. 2021, 30% of Americans believed the election system is "not sound at all," up from 22% in Jan. 2021.

The most recent Monmouth poll indicated that many Democrats also believe that the election system has problems that need fixing. But the latest poll from November found people were far more likely to believe the system was unsound if they also believed that Biden won by fraud.

"The more attention is paid to these alleged flaws in the system, the more that appears to be driving down faith in the electoral process, particularly among Republicans," Collins said. "That is a big problem."

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.