PHOENIX — The top election officials in Pima and Maricopa counties say they will not enforce a new state law that makes “ballot harvesting” a crime.
“We’re not police,” said Pima County Elections Director Brad Nelson.
“People bring early ballots to us, we’re going to process them like we always have,” said Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell. And that means whether someone brings in their own ballot — or a basket full of them.
Potentially more significant, both Nelson and Purcell said they will not take down the names of those who show up with multiple ballots.
The law that takes effect Saturday makes it a felony, punishable by a year in state prison, to knowingly collect blank or filled-out early ballots from another person.
Rebecca Wilder, spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said the only way for her office to bring charges against someone for violating the law is if there is first a report to prosecutors from a law enforcement agency. If election officials do not take names, there is nothing to provide to police and, therefore, nothing to report to prosecutors.
Nelson said his decision not to turn away baskets of early ballots — and not to report those who carry them — is in line with his reading of the law.
There were early versions of the legislation that would have required poll workers to note who was arriving with multiple ballots, he said. “That is not in the current law,” Nelson said.
Nelson sketched out a scenario where he might be working at a polling place.
“In comes a person with a mail tray full of early ballots to drop off,” he said.
“We are going to accept those things,” Nelson said. “We are not going to ask for ID from that courier, for lack of a better term. We’re not going to log his or her name.”
The policy by election officials on “harvested” early ballots comes as a federal judge is set to hear arguments about whether the prohibition is legal.
Challengers, including Democrats and party officials, contend the measure effectively harms the ability of certain minority groups to vote. They want U.S. District Judge Douglas Rayes to block enforcement.
At the heart of the issue is a practice by some civic and community groups to collect early ballots that are sent to the homes of voters but have not been mailed back.
Secretary of State Michele Reagan, a Republican, pushed the Republican-controlled Legislature to approve the change. She argued that allowing one person to collect multiple ballots created an opportunity for fraud.
State Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, agreed.
“I’ve been told the way they do it is they collect the ballots early, they put them in a microwave with a bowl of water, steam them open, take the ballots,” he said. “If they like the way it’s voted they put them back in. If they don’t like the way it’s voted, they lose that ballot.”
Shooter acknowledged that nothing ever came of an inquiry.
The lawsuit is based on the contention that the legislation was aimed largely at minority voters who “have relied heavily on community members, organizers and friends to deliver ballots.” Now, with the threat of a felony, the challengers say these same groups “are significantly more likely to have their right to vote abridged or denied in the coming general election.”
The politics of the legislation were underscored in a speech Reagan made earlier this year to the Conservative Political Action Conference discussing the measure. She said it is “the radical left who uses ballot harvesting.”
Reagan has defended the measure, saying there is nothing partisan about it. She said this legislation and others pushed through by GOP lawmakers are designed to make it “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
But neither Reagan nor any proponent has offered proof that those who collect ballots are selectively deciding which ones to turn in and which to discard. And tampering with or throwing out a ballot already is a crime.