- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona Republican legislators advanced several election-related bills Wednesday that Democrats say would limit voter participation and open the doors to heavier spending to influence elections by deep-pocketed donors.

The bills address campaign finance, the collection of early ballots and voter initiatives. Another would ask voters to eliminate the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

After nearly two hours of debate, the House gave initial approval to Senate Bill 1339, by Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, which makes it a felony for anyone but a family member, caregiver or candidate to collect more than two early ballots from voters during a two-year election cycle.

Supporters say the bill will prevent the large-scale collection of votes known as known as “ballot harvesting,” which they say could lead to fraud.

The bill stemmed from a case in Yuma County, where someone dropped off about 5,000 early ballot requests minutes before the deadline and about 2,000 were found to be invalid, Shooter said. But Democrats point to the lack of any evidence of fraud and said the effort is a GOP ploy to hurt Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts.

Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, said the bill includes language that allows those who need help turning in their votes to get it from family members or caregivers. “I don’t see why returning a ballot is any more of a challenge than any of your other commitments such as paying a bill,” she said.

Democrats called the bill an act of voter suppression. “When it comes to voting rights, we should side with the voter,” said Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix.

The House then acted on three other election-related bills in rapid succession - one making it harder for voter initiatives to get on the ballot, another that boost campaign contribution limits by about 25 percent and a third that would ask voters to repeal the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

Clark said the legislature was sending a message to voters with the GOP bills.

“We are attempting to tell them that Clean Elections should go away,” he said. “We have in many ways made it more difficult to vote, and with this bill we will increase campaign contribution limits something like 25 percent despite the fact we have not had that kind of inflation - thus creating an advantage for people who have greater access to money.”

The Clean Elections repeal will be on 2016 ballot if Senate Concurrent Resolution 1001 passes on a formal vote. It would take the estimated $9 million in yearly funding and divert it to education.

Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, a longtime Clean Elections opponent, has said that after more than 15 years it’s time for voters to re-evaluate Clean Elections and public campaign financing.

Opponents argue that it is wrong to force voters to choose between Clean Elections and paying for schools.

Ugenti said she would consider voting against the bill despite that fact that it is being offered by a fellow Republican. She had tried to get the Clean Elections money diverted to the general fund but then took it off the bill Wednesday.

“You’re asking them basically two separate questions, and I don’t think that’s good public policy,” she said.

The election bills advanced to the governor or given initial approval Wednesday were:

-Senate Bill 1339 limits who can collect another person’s voted or unvoted early ballot to a family member, caregiver or candidate.

- Senate Concurrent Resolution 1001 sends a proposition to voters to repeal the Citizens Clean Elections Commission and give its $9 million in funding to schools.

-House Bill 2415 increases campaign-contribution limits allowing candidates to take up to $6,250 from an individual donor per election cycle, up from $5,000.

- House Bill 2407 by Republican Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, modifies requirements for voter referendums and recalls, tightening rules on the name-gathering process. Signatures can be invalidated over what are currently considered minor mistakes, including marking the wrong date, misspellings or handwriting that doesn’t match. Supporters say the bill would clarify the referendum process and eliminate ambiguity in state law.

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