- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 19, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - House Republicans have reintroduced a pair of bills that would make it nearly impossible for voter-outreach groups to collect and drop off early ballots as the state prepares for the 2016 election season.

The proposals would make it a felony for anyone but a family member, roommate, caregiver, postal worker or candidate to collect early ballots from another person in an act sometimes called “ballot harvesting.”

The outcome of the legislation could impact the state’s general and primary elections if the bill is signed into law and enacted before elections take place.

Early ballot voting makes up 60 percent of all voting in the state, a Secretary of State spokesman said. Both Republicans and Democrats engage in early ballot collection efforts, though Democrats tend to collect more.

There is no evidence that voter-outreach groups have ever tampered with or tossed early ballots.

But bill advocates, including Secretary of State Michele Reagan, say the measures ensure ballots are collected by the proper authorities.

“Live voted ballots that are outside of our chain of custody are a concern because it does provide an opportunity for unscrupulous behavior,” secretary of state spokesman Matt Roberts said.

The proposals by Reps. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, and Elections Chair Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, revive a key part of a major 2013 election law. Opponents collected more than 146,000 signatures to halt the 2013 law, but the Legislature instead voted to repeal it before an election could take place.

Republicans have revived the legislation piecemeal since then. In 2015, a similar early ballot collection measure by Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, nearly made it to the governor’s desk, but the Senate adjourned before the House had a chance to vote on the proposal.

At least 14 states restrict who can return a ballot and how ballots many they can collect, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In states such as Colorado, a person may collect as many as 10 ballots while states such as Arizona and Texas have no limits on how many ballots a person can collect and return.

Voter-outreach advocate Tomas Robles said ballot collection efforts educate and inform voters and develop a culture of voting. Kern and Ugenti-Rita’s legislation is intended to limit civic participation, he said.

“This is another way to oppress and suppress the vote of low income and people of color,” said Robles, executive director Arizona Center for Empowerment, a voter-outreach group. “Republicans noticed the increase in voting in 2012 and are making every attempt to prevent people in vulnerable communities from exercising one of their most basic and important rights as Americans.”

Rep. Ugenti-Rita said her measure is about protecting the integrity of each person’s vote and limiting misconduct by not letting one person be in control of another person’s ballot.

“You can still aggressively organize a get-out-the-vote effort. Go door knocking. Educate voters. Direct them to resources. Give them a ride to the polls. All of that stuff you can still do,” she said. “This bill is important to any voter who cares about protecting the integrity of their vote regardless of political affiliation.”

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