‘Conspiracy theories' still dominate Arizona Senate Elections Committee
Partisan tension remains high as the Legislature continues to pass bills related to election security
Nearly a month after Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes released documents further disproving claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, Senate Republicans continue to make such claims in the election committee.
“They didn’t find criminal fraud, something they could actually attach a criminal charge to,” Republican state Senator Sonny Borrelli said, his voice raising in response to a guest speaker who suggested that Republican election security bills are inspired by conspiracy theories. “But there were numerous, numerous violations of the civil law of the code.”
“For you to make that broad statement and impugn everyone..." The Republican from Lake Havasu didn’t finish his thought before Juan Mendez, a Democrat from Tempe, jumped to the speaker’s defense.
“He doesn't have to abide by that rule,” Mendez said, referring to committee chair Wendy Rogers’ rule against using the phrase “conspiracy theory” in her committee. The three went back and forth until Rogers, a Republican from Flagstaff, threatened to remove Mendez from the room.
Borrelli stood up from his chair and paced behind other senators, apparently to blow off steam. After a few moments, he stepped outside of the room where he spent most of the remaining meeting time. A staff member was forced to call him back in for each subsequent vote.
The spat came during testimony on HB2415, which would remove people from the active early voting mailing list if they go a full year without participating in an election. Republicans said it’s a way to declutter the early voting list, which they say is chock full of incorrectly identified voters that need to be purged from the system.
Opponents argued that the bill would only disenfranchise voters, as many only vote in presidential elections every four years, and may not be able to get their names back on the early voting list before it's too late.
State Senator Anna Hernandez doubled down while voting against the bill.
“Over and over again through the courts, through investigations, through every form you can think of, these theories have been debunked” the Democrat from Phoenix said.
“Conspiracy theories” came up again later in the committee meeting, this time in regard to HB2591, which would prohibit voters from bringing ballots to ballot drop boxes outside the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and would require that drop boxes be only inside or attached to county buildings and be under 24/7 video surveillance.
Hernandez asked the sponsor whether the bill is inspired by the 2022 documentary “2,000 Mules,” which makes false claims of widespread election fraud, focusing on “ballot mules” who allegedly brought hundreds of fraudulent ballots at a time to ballot drop boxes.
Bill sponsor Gail Griffin, a Republican state representative from Tucson, said she’s seen video of “people with boxes coming and dumping ballots,” though she maintained that “2,000 Mules” has “ nothing to do with this bill.”
Democrats said restricting the times in which voters can drop off ballots will make it harder for some to cast their vote. Republicans said those who can’t get to a drop box during normal business hours can either vote on election day or cast their vote by mail.
“The sponsor of this bill kept suggesting that the traditional mailbox is an acceptable option to return a ballot, yet traditional mailboxes are not under 24/7 surveillance and operate beyond traditional work hours,” Mendez said. “I wonder what the sponsor imagines is happening with the drop boxes that can’t happen with the mail boxes."
Mendez sided with Hernandez, suggesting that this bill is a product of the false claims in “2,000 Mules.”
The Republican-dominated committee supported five more measures they say will increase election integrity. Republican state Representative Austin Smith of Surprise sponsored HB2552 to preemptively prohibit ranked choice voting in Arizona. The bill is a mirror of Republican state Senator Anthony Kern’s SB1265, which passed through the Senate in February.
Ranked choice voting is a system in which a voter will rank all candidates on a ballot in order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of the first place votes, that candidate wins outright. If no candidate has a majority, the worst performing candidate is dropped, and those voters’ second place votes are then redistributed among the rest of the candidates. The process is continued until a candidate has more than 50% of the votes.
Republicans denounced the system as being overly confusing and inefficient. They said it will reduce voter turnout and silence the votes of those who prefer candidates who are eliminated first.
But Democrats say the system, which may be on the 2024 ballot as an initiative by the non-profit Save Democracy Arizona, may be the better option. Supporters say such a system would force candidates to appeal to a broader audience, which would in turn reduce extremists’ chances of victory.
Jodie Liggett, a lobbyist representing the Arizona League of Women Voters, said more than 60% of Arizona voters support ranked choice voting, which is used in Maine, Alaska, and multiple cities like New York and San Francisco.
“There should be no reason for this elected body to preemptively silence the voice of their constituents,” she told the committee.
Rogers and the rest of the Republicans said they support “one person one vote.”
“Whoever gets 50% plus one wins,” she said. “Everyone understands that. We don’t have runoffs in our state.”
The committee ended with discussion on HB2613, which would require that all vote recording tabulation machines be 100% sourced from and built in the U.S. Republican state Representative from Goodyear Steve Montenegro said he sponsored the bill as a matter of national security to prevent foreign entities from interfering in U.S. elections.
Jen Marson, representing the Arizona Association of Counties, said the machines used now are already manufactured in the U.S., but some parts, like plastics and electronics, are sourced from other countries.
State Senator Ken Bennett, a Republican from Phoenix, asked whether the bill would allow for a foreign-owned company to manufacture voting machines in the U.S.
“I’m concerned this bill treats any entity outside the U.S., whether friend or foe, as the same,” he said.
Rogers suggested changing it to target the U.S.’s enemies, rather than any foreign entity.
Montenegro said he doesn’t know that U.S. companies have the capacity to completely home-grow the voting machines, but “if there is a need, I do believe that the American engineering mindset would step up.”
Each bill received a do-pass recommendation on a 5-3 party line vote, with Republicans in favor.