- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - A bill that will make it all but impossible for voter-outreach groups to boost turnout by collecting early ballots from voters was advanced by an Arizona House panel dominated by Republicans on Wednesday.

The proposal 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.

Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan is backing the last-minute amendment to Senate Bill 1339. The proposal failed in the House elections committee last week, but it was revived and added to an unrelated bill. The appropriations committee approved the amended bill on a 9-5 party-line vote.

The bill revives and toughens the penalty for picking up early ballots that was a key part of a major 2013 election law. That overhaul angered Democrats, some conservative Republicans and third-party candidates. After a successful signature-gathering effort to block the 2013 law pending a statewide election, the Legislature repealed House Bill 2305.

Several other parts of that 2013 bill are making their way through the Legislation in separate bills.

Democratic voter-outreach groups have successfully increased voter turnout by going door to door and collecting early ballots. Republicans also do early ballot collections, but on a much smaller level.

Republican proponents of the ban say the practice raises concerns of potential vote fraud.

Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, is carrying the amendment to Senate Bill 1339 to tighten rules on what Republicans call “ballot harvesting.” He urged members to back the tough amendment Reagan proposed.

“This is an attempt to stop the kind of massive ballot harvesting that takes place in almost every state in the country,” Shooter testified. “And when you lose chain of custody of your ballot, it is subject to fraud. I don’t know why anyone would defend something that would challenge the integrity of your ballots.”

Minority Democrats sharply questioned Shooter and state Elections Director Eric Spencer on the need for the bill. Neither official could provide specific examples of any voter fraud happening in Arizona because of the practice.

“So, it’s all speculation that by changing this rule this mysterious voter fraud that isn’t occurring will go away,” said Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley.

Meyer and other Democrats pointed out that the bill hurts voter-turnout efforts, especially in school bond and override elections where teachers often go door-to-door to explain the need for the school funding.

“And that a person who is a teacher could pick up three ballots or more, be charged with a felony and then perhaps lose their certification to teach is outrageous,” said Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix. “We are disenfranchising voters. We are disenfranchising the old, the poor, the weak by not allowing for their ballots to be picked up by someone their trust.”

But Spencer told the committee that under current law a person could collect hundreds or even thousands of ballots, opening the door for potential ballot fraud.

“Does it really take a scandal - does it really take a crisis for us to act?” he said. “I think the better answer is to proactively identify a problem and put a law in place before the crisis occurs.”

The bill now moves to the House floor after a routine constitutional review, and it will head to the Senate if it passes.


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