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Arizona GOP Lawmakers Propose New Laws To Remove Some People From Early Voting List


Turnout was way up in the 2018 midterms, and in the southwest, that translated into gains for Democrats. Now Republicans in some southwestern states are pushing bills that change the rules around voting. Critics say these changes are designed to reduce turnout in future elections. From Phoenix, KJZZ's Bret Jaspers reports on how it's playing out in Arizona.

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: Republicans had full control of Arizona's politics until last fall, then, after Democratic turnout surged, they lost 4 out of 9 statewide races including, a U.S. Senate seat. Now Republicans in the legislature are proposing new voting rules that could make it more complicated to cast a ballot. One change would remove some people from the permanent early voting list.


MICHELLE UGENTI-RITA: It says permanent early voting list. I don't know why everyone keeps ignoring the operative word, which is early.

JASPERS: That's the bill's sponsor, Republican State Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita. People on the permanent early voting list get ballots mailed to them so that they can mail them back or drop them off on Election Day. Ugenti-Rita wants counties to purge people from that list if they don't vote using an early ballot in two consecutive election cycles.


UGENTI-RITA: We want to make sure that the lists are up to date. That's just good practice. That makes sense on, frankly, any kind of database that you have that you're really communicating with those who want to be communicated with and that are using the service. This is a service. It's a convenience.

JASPERS: Local election officials say they already have ways to maintain clean voting rolls. The Arizona secretary of state's office estimates 200,000 voters currently on the permanent early voting list didn't vote in both 2016 and 2018. But the office also says the bill's language is unclear, making it hard to estimate the impact. Democratic Representative Athena Salman calls it voter suppression to purge the permanent early voting list known as PEVL - or PEEVL (ph).


ATHENA SALMAN: There is a great debate around whether or not it is PEHVL (ph) or PEEVL.


SALMAN: But I find it fitting that, if this bill passes, the list will no longer be permanent. And so one might call it EEVL (ph).

JASPERS: Republicans dispute this is an attempt to make voting more difficult. The bill doesn't remove people from the registration rolls, just the mailing list for early ballots. Some local officials say it will create more confusion. Republican lawmakers have proposed other bills this legislative session that have drawn criticism from voting rights groups, including one that bans paying workers for each voter registration form they turn in.

DANIELLE LANG: We are seeing both the good and bad side of the fallout of the 2018 election.

JASPERS: Danielle Lang is an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, which works with voting rights groups across the country, including in Arizona. She says lawmakers often re-examine voting laws after an election. For example, there's a push from Iowa's Republican governor to make it easier for convicted felons to restore their right to vote after release. That effort is bipartisan, unlike Arizona's bill, which has advanced along party lines.

LANG: All Americans care about election integrity, and yet these issues get framed in very unhelpful partisan ways.

JASPERS: Republicans control the Arizona legislature. The bill to purge the permanent early voting list still has to pass the full House. GOP Governor Doug Ducey's office says it doesn't comment on pending legislation. For NPR News, I'm Bret Jaspers in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.