PHOENIX - Republicans used the final hours of their just-ended legislative session to push through a series of changes in election laws that could give them advantages in future elections.
The measure into which they are all packed, which is now on the desk of Gov. Jan Brewer, started out as a procedure to stop sending early ballots to some who do not use them.
But the measure quickly ballooned into a catch-all for other Republican priorities. And GOP leaders were so anxious to get this through they even had a staffer from the National Republican Congressional Committee with Arizona roots call one of the legislators who was balking.
Among the additions:
• Making it a crime for volunteer political workers and organizations to collect early ballots from voters and take them to polling places;
• Increasing the number of signatures that minor-party legislative and congressional candidates need to get on the ballot;
• Imposing higher legal standards on voter-sponsored initiatives, making it easier to throw them off the ballot if they do not strictly comply with each and every provision of the law;
• Adding some procedural requirements to recall laws.
The changes were added to a bill designed to address what happened last year after 170,000 people who got early ballots went to vote at the polls instead, and without those early ballots in hand. They were given provisional ballots that are counted later, but only after verifying those voters had not also sent in their early ballots.
The legislation says if you don't use your early ballot for four elections over two years, then a postcard goes out. If you don't respond to that, you no longer get an early ballot in the mail.
Rep. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said the law is a Republican effort to suppress likely Democratic votes.
"It's targeting strategies that have been particularly utilized in minority neighborhoods, in poorer parts of town, parts of the community that aren't as active in the voting process," he said.
Quezada said political workers encourage people in those areas not only to register to vote but also to get on the permanent early-voting list to make it as easy as possible. But he acknowledged they're not always initially interested in voting, don't use their early ballots and may ignore a postcard.
"Let's say that they're removed and then next year they are excited about a ballot issue, they are excited about a candidate," he said. "And they sit back waiting for the ballot to arrive in the mail and it never comes."
Quezada said he prefers an affirmative opt-out: Mail the postcard - but people who are otherwise eligible to vote remain on the list unless they specifically ask to be removed.
He also objected to making it illegal for a paid or volunteer political worker or members of organized groups to pick up anyone's early ballot and bring it to the polls.
Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, said that's an invitation for fraud. She said there's nothing unduly restrictive about the language.
"Try to find one other state that lets an individual walk into a polling place with 4,000 ballots," she said. "It's laughable."
Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez, a Democrat and Hispanic, opposes letting political workers handle early ballots.
"There's nothing wrong with giving it to a family member or co-worker," she said. "I have always done press releases telling people not to give your ballot to strangers."
But Quezada said these people are not "strangers."
"What's happening here is these are organizations who have developed relationships with communities," he said.
"These voters aren't giving their ballot to a stranger," Quezada said. "They're giving it to somebody they trust."
The legislation failed in the Senate on its first a roll-call vote Thursday night as Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, refused to go along. That left it one vote short and sent Republicans scurrying to find ways to get him to change his mind.
Pierce said he got a call from Daniel Scarpinato, former press aide to state House Speaker Andy Tobin. Scarpinato now works for the NRCC in Washington.
Scarpinato sidestepped questions of whether he was calling on behalf of the NRCC, saying he was "talking to friends of mine in Arizona." He also denied pressuring Pierce but would not detail what he did say.
When the measure was resurrected, Pierce was a supporter. Pierce said he still had concerns about making it harder for minority party candidates to get on the ballot and making criminals out of those who take in someone else's ballot.
But he said he also saw merits to other sections. And after other Republicans who he thought also were opposed went along, he saw no reason to be the lone GOP dissenter - and the cause for the bill's failure.
The situation was different in the House, where two Republicans, their votes not needed, got to dissent.
"I just have a great concern with anything that puts roadblocks in the way of increasing voter turnout," said Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek. And Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, said the package had "many little things that added up to a bill I didn't feel comfortable voting for."
The bill also contains a provision altering laws requiring Secretary of State Ken Bennett to forward campaign finance law violations to the attorney general. It says the complaint can go to the county attorney if the target is the attorney general.
That stems from a court ruling earlier this year that Bennett had to give a complaint against Attorney General Tom Horne to Horne. Even if Horne could not investigate himself, the judge said, current law permits Horne to decide who will.
The legislation undoes that ruling by making Bennett's power to give the complaint against Horne to the county attorney retroactive to last July, before the complaint against Horne was filed.
"Try to find one other state that lets an individual walk into a polling place with 4,000 ballots. It's laughable."
Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale