Arizona legislators have their work cut out for them as they enter their third week of a legislative session that comes on the heels of a tumultuous election cycle and in the midst of a worsening pandemic.
They’re also playing catch-up. Last year’s session ended early because of the Covid-19 outbreak, leaving many bills sine die. Those old bills will be competing with a slew of new election-related bills introduced by the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
Many GOP legislators have made repeated claims of fraud in last November’s elections, the results of which turned Arizona blue for the first time in 20 years.
Republican state senators, led by Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, filed a lawsuit in December to compel Maricopa County to turn over ballots and other materials related to the presidential elections for audit. As of last week, supervisors had agreed to turn over some data.
Predictably, the House is inundated with new election bills this session, including ones sponsored by Republicans that would eliminate the Permanent Early Voting List, create restrictions on early ballots and the compilation of “official precinct registers,” lists of voter’s name, address, party preference to be compared against electronic election results.
Early voting, mail-in ballots and so-called ‘rigged’ electronic vote tabulators are frequent targets of fraud claims — claims which have been debunked.
House Democrats, for their part, have introduced bills that would strengthen early voting and the use of mail-in ballots. House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, said that election integrity is also high on the list of priorities for Democrats, accusing some Republicans of voter suppression.
“What we’ve seen over the last several years is attempts to make it much more difficult for people to actually exercise their right to vote,” Sen. Bolding said. “So we’ll be fighting to defend democracy and expand ways that people can vote.”
How the legislature will fare as COVID cases spike Arizona is also a topic of concern.
When Sen. Fann introduced measures to mitigate the spread of COVID including mandating masks inside, imposing social distancing of 6 feet and limiting in-person participation from the public, some Republicans vowed not to comply, including Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa.
Sen. Townsend told Capitol Media Services in December she would not be wearing a mask at the Capitol.
“I’ve already told them where I stand,” she said. “What are they going to do? Arrest me?”
This year, a separate swearing-in ceremony was held for lawmakers who would not don a mask.
Despite resistance from some fellow party members, Sen. Fann said she is hopeful that extra precautions will allow for a normal session.
“We’re trying and hoping that we can have a regular full session with extra safeguards,” she said, adding that she doesn’t “want to take any chances” with regard to member and staff health.
“We have members and staff members who have underlying health problems. We have members and staff members that have brand new babies at home,” Sen. Fann said. “We are just trying our best to get some work done and do it as safely as possible.”
Republicans in the House are also optimistic their COVID measures will be enough to prevent another early adjournment. Speaker of the House Russell Bowers, R-Mesa, “worked closely with members of both parties...to assemble thoughtful safety guidelines,” the new House Majority Leader Ben Toma said in a statement.
Some Democrats aren’t convinced. Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, believes another shortened session is likely.
“I think that there will be a push to get in and out as we see the pandemic worsening,” she said.
When asked if she’s hopeful for a productive legislative session, Sen. Alston said “I don’t know how we would term productive,” predicting “unnecessary drama” resulting from certain members flaunting COVID protocols.
Sen. Alston said she likely will be at the Capitol in-person this session, but as one of the oldest member of the Senate, she said she will likely be phoning-in from her office as a precaution.
The session “may be contentious at first,” said Alston “Hopefully we’ll fall into a routine that works.”
Republican leadership in both the House and Senate said their priority is to fully open the economy and enact legislation to protect businesses from COVID liability if they are following safety guidelines.
Vaccine distribution was a topic on the minds of both party’s leadership, agreeing that a swift and functional rollout should be a top priority.
“Our legislators and leadership are focused on making sure the state has the resources needed so the vaccine is distributed in a safe and timely manner,” said House Majority Leader Toma.
Maricopa County is currently in Phase 1B of vaccine rollout, which prioritizes certain civil servants, EMTs, K-12 teachers and people 75 and older, among others. As of Thursday, 153,196 vaccines have been distributed.
House Minority Leader Bolding said the pandemic has exposed many inequalities in the state’s system, but said he and fellow Democrats have created a plan to aid in an equitable and fair vaccine distribution.
Bolding expressed some frustration with how some of his GOP colleagues have conducted themselves with regard to COVID and election queries, but stated he remains hopeful there can be bipartisan cooperation on issues Republicans and Democrats more or less agree upon, listing criminal justice reform as a potential area of agreement.
“I never close the door on any opportunities to push policy forward,” said Rep. Bolding. “Whether it’s with the governor’s office or as with legislative Republicans, my door will remain open to get things done.”