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Arizona Republicans continue pushing voting restrictions, risking backfire

Kirk Siegler/NPR
About 100 voting bills have now been introduced in the Arizona legislature, many are seen as limiting or restricting access to the ballot box.

By last count at the Arizona State Capitol, close to a hundred voting bills have been introduced, part of a nationwide push by far-right Republican-controlled legislatures to pass restrictive voting laws.

The swing state of Arizona is front and center — home to 10% of all the proposed legislation — despite two reviews showing no problems with the 2020 presidential election. One of those, done by the Florida firm Cyber Ninjas, actually handed more votes to President Biden, who narrowly won Arizona.

Critics of the so-called voter reform push see it as part of a slide toward authoritarianism. But state Rep. John Fillmore, an architect of some of the bills currently pending in Arizona, disputes claims that Republicans want to suppress votes.

"I want every American to have the opportunity to vote," Fillmore said one sunny morning on the plaza in front of the Arizona House of Representatives.

Fillmore represents one of Arizona's most conservative districts around Apache Junction, in the suburban desert east of Phoenix. The businessman often seen in a bolo tie says many of the proposed bills, which range from measures to require all ballots be hand counted to restrictions on ballot drop off boxes, are a response to concerns by his constituents.

"I know when I'm out there on the street, and I meet people that are my constituents or just others throughout the state of Arizona, voting integrity is still an issue," Fillmore says.

A couple of the most controversial — and extreme — measures appear to be stalled out for now, including HB 2596, that could have, among other things, allowed this legislature to move to reject the results of an election it didn't like. Another would have ended most early and mail in voting — Arizona was among the first states to adopt vote by mail some three decades ago.

"The fact that our elected officials in this country could even be introducing bills that so thoroughly undermine our democracy sends a really bad message," says Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights and Elections Program, which has analyzed every voting rights bill introduced in state legislatures since 2011.

Their study, published in January, found 39% more restrictive voting bills this year over the same time last year.

/ Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
People deposit their mail-in ballots for the U.S. presidential election at a ballot collection box in Phoenix on Oct. 18, 2020.

Going "back to 1958"?

Morales-Doyle doesn't expect many of the most extreme bills to go far in Arizona or other states. But analysts are worried that their very mention and news coverage of them could lead to further distrust in the electoral system among the general public.

"All of this rhetoric, as it continues to grow and fester, I think, is sort of laying the groundwork for future attacks on our democracy," he says.

During a recent debate on his bill to require all voting to be done on election day in a voter's precinct only, Rep. Fillmore said he wanted to bring voting back to how it was in 1958.

That didn't land well.

Arizona has a fraught history of Jim Crow laws. Today, Republicans hold just a slim majority in the legislature and Arizona's population is getting more diverse thanks to in-migration from states like California.

For his part, Fillmore says Democrats are trying to misconstrue what he said, when he really just wants voting to get back to its basics.

"What I was referring to was back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you had voting in the precinct, with government identification," he says. "You had counting done in the precinct reported that day and that night."

Civil rights groups liken the comment to a "dog whistle"

A couple miles east of the state capitol is the office of the Arizona Informant, a Black-owned newspaper published by Cloves Campbell Jr.

/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Kirk Siegler/NPR
Cloves Campbell Jr., a former Arizona legislator, says if passed, many of the bills would move the state backward.

"You can say that you didn't mean it, but you said it," he told NPR, in reference to the 1958 comment. "I think that to a certain extent a lot of people feel that they want to go back to the quote un-quote good old days for them, that wasn't good ole days for everyone."

Campbell also served in the state legislature, from 2007-2011. So did his father, who became Arizona's first Black state senator in 1966. Campbell Jr. says the Arizona bills go totally against democracy, which the U.S., he notes, preaches and tries to set up all around the world.

"When they won an election, the election was fine, but when they started losing elections, all of a sudden, there's a problem with the process," he says. "There's not a problem with the process, it may just be a problem with you the individual, that people are voting for, they just don't like you."

A few Republicans are standing up in opposition

At this point, only a handful of Arizona Republicans are speaking out against the rash of bills that seem to suggest the 2020 election here was fraudulent.

"I guess what troubles me the most is it's not true," says Paul Boyer, a state senator who represents a swing district in the suburbs north of Phoenix.

Boyer has been joining with Democrats to block some of the bills. During a break in a recent floor debate, he said many of them are grounded in conspiracy theory.

"Everything is viewed through the lens, that, well, the election is stolen so therefore we need X, Y or Z bill and that'll fix everything," Boyer says.

/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Kirk Siegler/NPR
State Sen. Paul Boyer has been among only a handful of Arizona Republicans moving to block the controversial voting bills.

Last year when Boyer refused to join Republicans who were trying to seize voting records from Maricopa County, party activists tried to recall him. He was also threatened and briefly had police security at his home. Today, Boyer says he's disturbed by the GOP's move toward populism, deficit spending and a cult of personality with Donald Trump.

"Those three things don't lead to longevity for any party," Boyer says. "And especially for a guy who's been a Republican for all of five years, now he gets to determine who the real Republicans are."

Are everyday voters paying attention in Arizona?

Arizonans may be more concerned with efforts to change voting laws than the future of the GOP. Even in traditionally Republican — and wealthy — strongholds like Scottsdale, there are signs recently of Arizona's shift from ruby red to purple.

"We as people have a right to vote, we have a right to voice our opinions, our concerns," says Eric Fernandez, who was spending part of the recent President's Day holiday at an outdoor mall with his young family.

Fernandez relocated here last year from Los Angeles.

"This is my new home, my family loves it here," he says. "So to see this restrictive approach taken I think challenges our ability to enjoy what we've found in this state."

Arizona went blue in the last presidential election for the first time since 1996. And it's possible these Arizona voting bills could backfire on Republicans in the long run, not the least of which because many Republicans have historically liked the convenience of voting early or by mail.

Boyer won't be sticking around to find out. He's decided not to run again. And while he's one of the lone voices in the GOP in the statehouse speaking out against the "Big Lie," Boyer still says he voted for Trump in 2020.

"And I would do it again," he told NPR. "I am more concerned about what he's done after he's been out of office than while he was in office. I think he did a lot of good things when he was in office."

Boyer doesn't regret his 2020 vote because in particular he liked the former president's economic and foreign policies.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
Liz Baker