PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday signed legislation making it easier to purge infrequent voters from a list of those who automatically get a mail-in ballot each election, ignoring protests from Democrats and prominent business leaders who said the measure would suppress the votes of people of color.
The Republican governor acted hours after a tense debate in the state Senate, during which Republicans tried to silence Democrats who said the bill would perpetuate systemic racism.
The legislation is part of a wave of proposals to reduce voting access that have passed in Republican-controlled states around the country following former President Donald Trump’s defeat last year.
Republicans have only a single-vote edge in the Arizona House and Senate, so their legislation has been tougher to pass than in other states like Florida, which just made all voters reapply for a mail ballot every two years rather than dropping ones who aren’t active enough.
Repeated reviews have found no problems with the election results in Arizona or elsewhere, but many Trump supporters still believe his loss was the result of fraud. Contractors hired by Senate Republicans are still doing a hand recount of 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County as part of a sprawling review of the vote count in the nation’s fourth-largest county, which includes metro Phoenix.
The measure signed Tuesday would remove people who don’t return their mail-in ballot for two consecutive election cycles from the permanent early voting list, which allows voters to automatically receive a ballot before each election. About 75% of Arizona voters are on the list. Affected voters would get a mailer asking if they want to remain on the list, and they would be removed if they don’t respond within 90 says.
Democrats say the legislation will disenfranchise voters who expect to get a ballot that never arrives, with an especially strong impact on people of color.
“It makes me think you don’t like our voters, or who has the potential to vote,” Democratic state Sen. Juan Mendez of the Phoenix suburb of Tempe said to Republicans. “Because this whole thing looks like nothing more than a ruse to disenfranchise voters who you don’t like.”
Republicans say the measure is necessary to limit the number of unvoted ballots in circulation, noting it would only affect voters who have shown disinterest in voting by mail.
“We need to leave this chamber ensuring our voters we have election integrity in the state of Arizona,” said Sen. Vince Leach, a Republican from Tucson.
Ducey had repeatedly avoided commenting on the bill and other election measures. He certified Arizona’s 2020 election results, drawing derision from Trump, and has generally stood up for the integrity of the vote count in his state. But he’s also said there’s room for improvement.
Some of the GOP’s more draconian proposals have not gone far, including measures allowing the Legislature to overturn voters and appoint its own Electoral College delegates.
But more narrowly focused measures have advanced, including a ban on private funding for elections. He also signed a bill that stopped implementation of a settlement between Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and the Navajo Nation, which would have required officials to give people who forget to sign their mail ballots five days after the election to fix the problem.
There’s some ambiguity about when the bill that Ducey signed Tuesday would first affect elections. It was widely believed to apply to voters who skipped the 2018 and 2020 elections, but legislative lawyers said courts would most likely say voters can’t be purged unless they sit out 2022 and 2024.
An analysis for voting rights groups found that about 140,000 registered voters meet the criteria to receive a mailer and, if they don’t respond, to be purged.
The action comes as Democrats and Republicans sparred in the U.S. Senate over a Democratic proposal that would overhaul federal elections and curtail recent actions by Republican state lawmakers to implement new voting rules nationwide.
Congressional Democrats are pushing a broad package of reforms that includes changes to election, campaign finance, ethics and redistricting laws. But Republicans are universally opposed, calling the proposals a Democratic power grab and federal overreach.
On Tuesday, the Senate Rules Committee held a lengthy hearing in which lawmakers debated various changes to the legislation, with Republicans looking to gut key sections but falling short in the evenly split Senate.
Democrats say recent legislation passed in Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Montana underscore the urgency of their effort, but the path forward remains bleak. To break the impasse in the 50-50 Senate, Democrats will have to be willing to end rules that govern when bills can advance, and there is not widespread agreement to do that.