PHOENIX — The state Republican Party is training volunteers to look for and document illegal “ballot harvesting” after county election officials said they won’t enforce the new law.
Party Chairman Robert Graham said the volunteers, who already are designated as poll watchers, will be the eyes and ears of the GOP to look for those who show up with multiple ballots. And he said they will be given a checklist — still being developed — of what to document.
Graham acknowledged that other state laws limit what party-designated observers can actually do inside the polling places. Talking to voters is forbidden, as is photography.
But Graham said they’re still free to follow voters out into the parking lot, ask them questions, take their pictures and photograph their vehicles and license plate. That information, he said, might give police and prosecutors the information they need to bring charges.
The tactic drew an angry reaction from Enrique Gutierrez, spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party.
“Republicans have a long history of intimidating voters,” he said. “This is just another attempt for them to intimidate more voters at the polls.”
Gutierrez acknowledged that observers cannot confront voters inside polling places.
“But, at the same time, if you have poll workers following people to their cars ... that’s still voter intimidation,” he said.
GOP spokesman Tim Sifert sees the issue differently.
“If anybody ... is potentially committing a crime of some kind, you would expect that citizens should do something about it,” he said.
The law, approved earlier this year by the Republican-controlled Legislature makes it a felony, punishable by a year in state prison, to knowingly collect blank or filled-out ballots from another person.
It is aimed at the practice of various political and civic groups of having volunteers scour neighborhoods for those who had received early ballots but had failed to mail them back in time to be counted. Secretary of State Michele Reagan, also a Republican, countered that it created an opportunity for fraud.
But election officials from several counties have said they do not intend to stop and question anyone who shows up at polling places on election day with multiple ballots.
“We’re not the police,” said Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell.
Sifert said the new monitoring for ballot harvesters is an extension of what monitors already do.
“Political parties have certain rights, if not responsibilities indeed, to help election officials ensure the integrity of elections,” he explained. That’s why the law allows “observers” selected by each party to be present not only at polling places but where the ballots are actually tabulated.
Those observers are supposed to notify the polling place’s top official if they see anything irregular. The GOP also gives observers a toll-free number to call, connecting them with party attorneys, if they believe laws are being broken.
But Sifert said actually catching those who violate the law is something quite different.
It starts with the fact that someone who brings in multiple ballots is not necessarily breaking the law. Individuals can collect ballots from family members and others living in the same household. And caregivers at nursing homes and adult day-care centers are permitted to collect ballots.
And then there’s the evidence part.
Sifert said poll observers cannot take photos or videos in the polling place — or even within 75 feet — of someone walking in with multiple ballots. In fact, he said, the observers are precluded from approaching the voter.
Still, Sifert said there are ways to gather evidence.
“If a poll observer sees something they are free to go outside that 75-foot limit,” he said.
“That’s where they can turn on their phone to take video or pictures or something like that,” Sifert continued. That also includes asking the voter his or her name and why there were multiple ballots.
And if the voter tells the observer to shove off?
“They can take a picture of the person,” he said, as well as a photo of the license plate on the voter’s car that should help identify the voter.
“We certainly don’t recommend harassing anybody,” Sifert said.
“All that stuff that’s in the public view is fair game,” he said.
That still leaves the question of whether the tactics might provide enough information to result in anyone being arrested, much less prosecuted.
“We’ve talked to a number of different county officials across the state, sheriffs, county attorneys,” said Graham, asking them “what do you need” to bring a case. Graham said what they tell him will be put into a checklist that will be given to observers during their training Saturday morning at state GOP headquarters in Phoenix.
But Graham said that one option, suggested to him by a law enforcement official he would not identify, is to have observers call 911 “and report a felony in progress.”
The state and national Democratic parties, along with the Clinton campaign, have sued to have the ballot harvesting law voided. They contend the law imposes as higher burden on minorities than the population at large, something that is forbidden under the federal Voting Rights Act.
A judge has yet to rule on that claim.