A bill that would stop some voters from getting a ballot automatically mailed to them each election failed unexpectedly in Arizona’s state Senate Thursday after a single Republican joined Democrats in voting against the legislation.
GOP state Sen. Kelly Townsend explained her surprise "no" vote on the state Senate floor amid a tense episode that saw the senator get into a heated confrontation with the bill's sponsor.
"I am for this bill, but I am not voting for it until after the audit," she said, referring to an audit orchestrated by Senate Republicans of ballots in Maricopa County reportedly set to get underway this week and last through mid-May. The audit is a continuation of GOP efforts to question the results of the 2020 election in a state President Joe Biden won by over 10,000 votes. His narrow victory prompted many Republicans to embrace former President Donald Trump's baseless allegations of voter fraud. Some called for the Legislature to overrule Biden's win and seat electors who would deliver the state to Trump instead. (State GOP leaders said the Legislature did not have that power, and Biden's Electoral College victory was certified. In 2016, Trump won the key state of Michigan by about 10,000 votes.)
The bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, said on the floor it was "disappointing to be on the receiving end of someone’s temper tantrum."
Townsend said she wouldn't vote on any of the other proposed election changes until after the audit was completed, and complained that her own election bills had died in the committee.
"Absolutely I'm upset about all of my election bills — dead. Absolutely, I'm upset. You want to see a temper tantrum? I can show you one if you really want to see it," she said.
"This seems to be the grand election integrity bill of the year and we're all excited about it," she continued. "But it's not the only bill of the year."
Ugenti-Rita later made a motion to reconsider the bill, which would allow the senator to bring the bill up for a vote again.
Senate Bill 1485 would remove infrequent voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List (PEVL), turning it into an “active” early voting list. Counties would be required remove voters from the early voting list in odd-numbered years if they do not cast a ballot by mail for two consecutive election cycles and do not respond to a notice from election officials within 90 days.
The legislation passed the House earlier this week, but needs approval from the state Senate to head to GOP Gov. Doug Ducey's desk.
Democrats and advocates said they fear the squabble between Republicans is simply a temporary reprieve, but hope to capitalize on the moment by pressuring businesses and voters to lobby Ducey to ask lawmakers to kill the bill in the legislature or veto it.
"This gives us an opportunity to step up all of those lobbying efforts," Democratic state Sen. Martín Quezada, a Democratic whip, told NBC News before the vote.
Quezada said they would pressure sports teams to consider boycotting Arizona's upcoming sporting events. The Super Bowl is scheduled to be played at the Arizona Cardinals' stadium in 2023, followed by the 2024 NCAA Final Four tournament.
S.B. 1485 is one of at least 22 restrictive election bills under consideration this year in Arizona, with more than half the bills targeting mail voting. Another bill that would add voter ID requirements to mail ballots, S.B. 1713, is still pending, though Townsend's vow not to vote for any election bills until after the audit makes the fate of the legislation uncertain.
Business leaders, Democrats, and advocates protested this bill fiercely, with dozens of business leaders coming out against it and Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James tweeting about the bill Wednesday to his nearly 50 million Twitter followers.
Republicans say the measure is about shoring up trust in Arizona’s elections and remain on the hunt for fraud, despite all official accounts concluding that the 2020 election was secure and its results accurate.
Maricopa County, which includes the city of Phoenix, conducted an internal accuracy test as mandated by law in November and determined the county election system had a 100 percent accuracy rate. Maricopa is by far the state’s largest county, with 4.4 million residents. According to Census data, more than 31 percent of those residents are Latino or Hispanic.
State officials are not conducting the audit of Maricopa County ballots. Instead, Senate Republicans hired four outside firms and booked a Phoenix arena to host the counting through May 14, according to NBC affiliate KPNX. Senate Republicans said a report would be issued around the end of May.
Florida-based firm Cyber Ninjas leads the audit, according to a Senate press release. The Arizona Republic and AZ Mirror reported that that firm's founder, Doug Logan, promoted election conspiracy theories on his since-deleted Twitter account. NBC News has not confirmed the tweets, and they appear to have since been removed from the Wayback Machine.
In a call with reporters a day before Thursday's vote on S.B. 1485, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, condemned the audit as a partisan "circus."
"Nobody should be taking the circus seriously. That's what it is. It's a circus, they have showed repeatedly that they're not interested in actual, real independent results," she said.
Heritage Action for America, a conservative group that has actively pushed for new election restrictions around the country, put out a statement on Thursday urging lawmakers to pass S.B. 1485 and S.B. 1713.
Townsend's vote is "a short-sighted attempt to draw attention to other election bills," said Vice President of Government Relations and Communications Garrett Bess in the statement.
While the Arizona legislative session is scheduled for 100 days, it's typically extended. Quezada said the session was extended on Thursday and will be done again while lawmakers work on a budget. But he added that members typically work to wrap the session up by 120 days, after which member's per diem pay — meant to pay for meals and expenses incurred during session — is reduced by more than half.
The audit is not expected to conclude before the 120th day of session.