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Committee narrowly endorses bill on purging early voter lists

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PHOENIX – Over objections from voting rights groups, a Senate committee endorsed a bill Tuesday aimed at helping counties manage permanent early voter lists to reduce the number of provisional ballots cast.

SB 1261, authored by Rep. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, would allow counties to purge from the lists people who don’t vote in both the primary and general elections in a given year.

Election officials would have to notify those voters by mail that their names will be removed if they don’t return a postcard saying that they wish to remain on the list.

Reagan said that after last year’s elections officials in all 15 counties asked the Legislature to help them decrease the number of provisional ballots cast.

Karen Osborne, Maricopa County elections director, told the Senate Elections Committee that her office fielded thousands of complaints from people who didn’t know they were on the permanent early voting list and wound up casting provisional ballots. Osborne said that 60,000 people on the county’s permanent early voter list went to polling places in the general election.

“The other thing we have is thousands of people coming into the polls, and there were thousands, saying, ‘I did not ask for this ballot by mail, I didn’t want this ballot by mail, I don’t want to be on the mail list,’” Osborne said.

Barbara Klein, president of the League of Women Voters of Arizona, said the bill could unintentionally purge the names of people who want to remain early voters. She said missing a few elections isn’t grounds for removal.

“To voters who do not live and breathe voting, this could be difficult,” Klein said.

Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, said the change could lead to military members being knocked off the lists while on deployment.

The committee voted 4-3 along party lines to endorse the bill, forwarding it to the Senate floor by way of the Rules Committee.

Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, who voted against the bill, objected among other things to a provision that would make it a Class 5 felony for anyone to alter any part of a voter registration form after the person registering has signed it.

Gallardo said that some volunteers who register voters add dates when they are left off of registration forms. Although he said volunteers shouldn’t change registration forms, he said a Class 5 felony was too harsh of a violation for those who think that they are doing something good.

Klein, with the League of Women Voters, said that groups who register voters should be responsible for their forms but called a Class 5 felony excessive.

“I don’t think they should change forms at all … but if somebody were to forget ‘AZ’ or something like that or a ZIP code, I mean I don’t think that constitutes reason for jail time,” Klein said.

Reagan said she recognizes that aspects of the bill need to be clarified and updated as it moves through the process.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who attended the hearing, said he was pleased with the decision and the testimony.

“I think the idea is worthy of continuing to work it through the process,” Bennett said. “I thought there were a lot of good concerns brought to their attention, and that’s what the process is for. And this is just the first step, so they’ll consider all those things and try to make it better.”