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State legislature bill could purge infrequent voters from early voting list

Students' inconsistent voting habits and skipping voting in two elections may purge them from the permanent early voting list

saley_PEVL_mail votes

"Students vote infrequently, putting them at risk as the Arizona GOP tries to make voting by mail harder across the state." Published on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

The Arizona Senate has revived a bill that would make the permanent early voting list, or PEVL, no longer permanent.

Senate Bill 1485, sponsored by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale) would require Arizona voters to use their mail-in ballot in both the primary and general election for two consecutive election cycles in order to remain on the PEVL, which allows voters to automatically receive an early mail-in ballot for every election.

The bill could remove thousands of registered Arizona voters from the early voting list. Had it been in place for the past two election cycles, an estimated 200,000 people — those who failed to vote in any of the primary or general elections in 2016 and 2018 — would have been removed. 

If the bill is passed, officials would send a notice to these individuals, and those who fail to respond would be removed from the list.

Backers of the bill regard it as a measure for cleaning up voter rolls. Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, said it would remove inactive voters from receiving ballots so that "our taxpayers aren't burdened with sending ballots over and over."

But Democrats argue that it's another attempt to suppress voters.

At ASU, 48.2% of students voted early and 14.6% voted by mail in 2018, according to a report from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement. Over the past few decades, Census data shows that people aged 18-29 have the most inconsistent voting patterns when compared to other age groups. 

This inconsistency may lead to lost opportunity, said Emma Burns, the voter suppression organizer for the Arizona Students Association, a non-partisan, student-led organization dedicated to representing the interests of Arizona's three public universities.

Burns noted that the bill would harm ASU students on the PEVL who may skip an election for various reasons and be taken off the early voting list.

“The letter doesn’t necessarily have to be received and acknowledge that you’re being purged (from the PEVL),” she said.

Burns believes it would disenfranchise student voters by making it more difficult to access a ballot.

“Once you register to vote, and check that (PEVL) symbol, you rely on the fact that it’s permanent and you never have to do it again,” she said.

She explained that those unaware of the legislation may not realize the need to consistently vote until Election Day, when it could be too late because Arizona prohibits same-day voter registration.

"Students don't have the knowledge ingrained within them that they need to vote consistently (and) they need to update and check their registration," she said.

Emily Sargent, a freshman studying nursing, said she worries the Senate bill would result in lower voter turnout among students, especially if they don't have to acknowledge their potential removal from the PEVL.

“The student population is a really important population to reach,” she said. “The legislation could be detrimental to the amount of students who decide to vote in the next election.”

However, proponents of the bill may have other reasons to support it. Sending less ballots out could prevent voter fraud by "reducing the opportunity for ballots to be sent out to people who are no longer voting," according to Rep. Ugenti-Rita.

Democrats, however, reject the idea that voter fraud occurs often enough to warrant the bill.

Cyrus Commissariat, a team leader of ASU’s chapter of Vote Everywhere, a nonpartisan organization that aims to empower voters, said that mail-in voter fraud in Arizona is rare, citing the post-election audits following the 2020 election.

“They’ve done audits, there’s no fraud,” said Commissariat, a junior studying political science, French and history.

Commissariat questions instead whether the introduction of the bill stems from a dissatisfaction with the election results.

“When enough people of color, young people, students ... are saying this is going to make it significantly harder for our people to vote, you have to wonder why they’re still choosing to go down this path,” he said.

SB 1485 is one of several Republican-backed bills making its way through the Arizona Legislature that proposes stricter mail-in voting procedures.

The Senate approved the measure and it awaits afinal House vote.

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