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Ballot box ban fails in Arizona Senate

PHOENIX — State senators refused Monday to outlaw or even restrict the use of ballot “drop boxes” despite claims they are opportunities for fraud — and despite backers citing a political movie claiming that stuffing the boxes were responsible for the 2020 election being stolen from Donald Trump.

There was unified opposition among Democrats who question the wisdom of new restrictions on the ability of voters to be able to drop off their early ballots.

But HB 2238 also drew strong opposition from Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale.

She cited the film “2000 Mules” which claims to have evidence that partisans were stuffing drop boxes with multiple ballots in swing states in large enough numbers to affect the outcome of the presidential race. Ugenti-Rita said as long as there are unattended ballot boxes the practice will continue.

HB 2238 was not the only election-related measure killed Monday by the Senate.

Lawmakers also killed HB 2378 to require consent of county election officials when the secretary of state settles election-related lawsuits. And they defeated HB 2602 to sharply restrict the ability of counties to set up emergency vote centers.

But it was the squabble over drop boxes — and the stir caused by the claims in the movie by Trump supporter Dinesh D’Sousa — that caused the sharpest debate.

In the film, D’Sousa says that digital tracking of cell phone signals show the same users driving by drop boxes multiple times, though the accuracy of such geolocation has been questioned.

There also is some footage of people putting multiple ballots into some drop boxes. But there is no evidence that any of this shows anyone in Arizona, where people can return the ballots of family members and others, committed fraud.

The claim in the film is that there were 400,000 illegal votes cast in the 2020 presidential election.

Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, who crafted the measure, said unmonitored drop boxes provide an opportunity for people to stuff them with fake early ballots.

“You should not be able to just put a bin on the side of the road in rural Arizona and expect that that’s going to be secure,” he testified when the measure was heard in committee earlier this session.

He pointed out that the Republican-controlled legislature approved a measure in 2016 designed to limit “ballot harvesting.” That law says individuals are still allowed to handle and return their own ballots, those of family members, those from the same household, or in cases where the person is a caregiver for someone else.

That law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. But Hoffman said more needs to be done to curb the practice.

“When you have unmonitored drop boxes, that creates an easy opportunity for bad actors to stuff ballots, to visit multiple ballot drop boxes and put ballots in each of them,” he said. “It’s not a secure practice.”

Only thing is, the bill that emerged from the House and went to the Senate allowed for drop boxes to remain if they were inside polling places or elsewhere where there were election officials present and monitoring them.

It also allowed for 24-hour remote drop boxes in locations where it was not “practical” for election officials to be present. But there would have to be round-the-clock video surveillance.

Ugenti-Rita told colleagues that passing HB 2238 as it was approved by the House was worse than doing nothing at all, citing the movie.

“If anyone believes what they saw in that documentary, ‘2000 Mules,’ they have four million minutes of videotape,” she said.

“For what?” Ugenti-Rita continued. “If you think it’s a problem, if you think ballot boxes contribute to ballot harvesting and can be manipulated, you would ban them, not require that we tape them.”

She said having video evidence that someone appears to have deposited multiple ballots is largely meaningless if it comes after the votes were counted, and after the election results were certified.

“The damage is already done,” Ugenti-Rita said

“If the goal is to restore confidence in the outcome of an election, then you ban what you think facilitates the manipulation,” she continued. “You don’t capture it on video.”

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, agreed, also citing “2000 Mules.” And she also found little comfort that unmonitored boxes would be under video surveillance.

“What good is a camera?” Townsend asked. “All it’s good at telling you is you got had, you got gamed.”

In fact, she wanted to go even further than Ugenti-Rita and even ban people from returning their early ballots through the mail.

“There are still blue drop boxes all over the state that you can stuff just as easily as you can stuff these drop boxes,” she told colleagues.

Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said he agrees with Ugenti-Rita. But he warned that altering the measure in the way she wanted would kill the bill when it returned to the House to consider the Senate amendments.

Ugenti-Rita, however, said that’s irrelevant and that the bill amounted to “rushing to look like we’re trying to do something” rather than solving the problem.

Also voting against the bill was Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale. He called the measure and its requirement for monitoring drop boxes an “unfunded mandate” on the counties, with the state not providing the dollars needed to comply.

Howard Fischer is a veteran journalist who has been reporting since 1970 and covering state politics and the Legislature since 1982. Follow him on Twitter at “@azcapmedia” or email azcapmedia@gmail.com.


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