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GOP Arizona State Senator Rejects Controversial Voting Bill Pending Election Audit

A poll worker sorts ballots inside the Maricopa County Election Department in Phoenix on Nov. 5, 2020. Republican voting bills in Arizona are on hold after a GOP state senator came out in opposition.
A poll worker sorts ballots inside the Maricopa County Election Department in Phoenix on Nov. 5, 2020. Republican voting bills in Arizona are on hold after a GOP state senator came out in opposition.

A controversial election bill was surprisingly voted down in Arizona on Thursday.

A Republican state senator broke ranks and voted against a GOP-backed measure that could remove tens of thousands of voters from the state's early ballot mailing list.

Sen. Kelly Townsend voted twice earlier this year for Senate Bill 1485, which would remove voters from the state's popular Permanent Early Voting List — a list of voters who are automatically mailed ballots for every election in which they're eligible to vote — if they don't use their ballot at least once in two straight two-year election cycles.

Democrats have decried the measure as part of a nationwide Republican effort to make voting harder in the wake of the 2020 election.

But Republicans hold one-vote majorities in both chambers of the Arizona Legislature, making it impossible for Democrats to defeat the bill on their own.

On Thursday, Townsend sunk the proposal on her own.

Townsend said she informed GOP leadership that she will no longer vote for any election legislation until after Senate Republicans complete an audit and hand recount of the 2020 general election in Maricopa County, Arizona's largest county.

Her position could doom not just for SB 1485, but other Republican-backed election bills nearing final approval, like a measure to add new voter-ID requirements for voting by mail.

Townsend said she's convinced there are issues with Arizona's elections that need fixing, but Senate Republicans shouldn't fast-track measures without knowing what issues need to be addressed.

"I did communicate I am for this bill, but I am not voting for it until after the audit. I made that very clear," Townsend said while explaining her no vote. "Apparently, I wasn't believed."

She later added: "I mean it when I say I am committed to fixing the problems in this election system in Arizona, even if it means my name is in red on this board and you guys can say it's a temper tantrum."

It was the bill's sponsor, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who accused Townsend of throwing a fit because some of Townsend's own voting bills were never heard in the Senate Government Committee — a committee chaired by Ugenti-Rita.

Ugenti-Rita said Townsend was making a show of caring about election integrity and voting against SB 1485 out of "spite" and "rage."

"It's disappointing that someone who purports to care about election integrity, who purports to care about the voters, is deciding to kill a very important election bill," the Scottsdale Republican said.

Democrats and some members of the Phoenix business community had ramped up pressure on Republicans to defeat the legislation, or at least for GOP Gov. Doug Ducey to veto the measure if it passed.

Democrats in the House, where the bill passed Tuesday on a party-line vote, had warned of potential economic consequences as a blowback, noting that Major League Baseball pulled the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta after Georgia lawmakers approved a sweeping overhaul of the state's elections. Arizona is scheduled to host the Super Bowl in 2023, as well as the NCAA Men's Final Four in 2024.

Relief in the bill's defeat could be shortlived, as Ugenti-Rita voted no on her own measure, a procedural maneuver that allows her to request the bill be reconsidered at a later date.

But if Townsend stays true to her word, it could be weeks until she's ready to vote on election bills again.

The Maricopa audit

Officials on Wednesday unload election equipment into the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix for a controversial audit sought by state Republicans.
Matt York / AP
Officials on Wednesday unload election equipment into the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix for a controversial audit sought by state Republicans.

The controversial audit of Maricopa County's voting system is not yet fully underway. County officials spent Wednesday delivering hundreds of tabulation machines to Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, which Senate Republicans rented to provide a facility for the audit. The 2.1 million ballots cast in the general election were being delivered Thursday.

Cyber Ninjas, a private Florida-based cybersecurity firm hired by Senate President Karen Fann to lead the audit, will have access to ballots and voting machines through at least mid-May, when the Senate's rental agreement at the coliseum expires. It could be days or weeks after the audit is complete before the firm delivers its findings.

It's unclear if the legislature will still be in session by then.

Arizona has no firm deadline for when legislative sessions must end. Traditionally, this is the time of year when Republicans are busy negotiating a budget behind closed doors, which they'll seek to adopt before adjourning for good.

Townsend said she doesn't support adjourning before the audit is finished. If Republicans wait until the 2022 legislative session to adopt election changes based on the audit results, those laws likely wouldn't take effect until after the state's August primary.

"It is incumbent upon us to be patient, and to wait, and to look and see what this audit produces," she said. "Otherwise we're doing it for no reason, it's for show."

Democrats and national voting rights groups have warned the audit is being performed on behalf of Republicans who already — falsely — believe the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, and by a firm run by an individual who's spread conspiracies of election fraud. (Fann has defended the auditors.)

Arizona's elections, particularly the results from Maricopa County, have already passed the scrutiny of multiple audits that verified votes were counted accurately and withstood a wave of lawsuits seeking to have the outcome overturned.

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