FROM THE CHAIR | Interview with Election Committee Chair - Michelle Ugenti-Rita

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FROM THE CHAIR | Interview with Election Committee Chair

The Canvass, NCSL’s elections newsletter (October 2015) – Representative Michelle Ugenti-Rita chairs the House Committee on Elections in the Arizona House of Representatives. She represents District 23 which includes the city of Scottsdale and the town of Fountain Hills. Representative Ugenti-Rita spoke to The Canvass on Oct. 22.

Q: What is your overriding perspective when it comes to election policy?
A: In Arizona there are several pieces of elections-related legislation introduced every year. I evaluate bills based on four things: does it enhance and protect the integrity of elections; does it empower voters; does it enable voter participation; and does it maintain the consistency of administration of elections. I don’t think elections should be a partisan issue.

Q: Many election officials would be glad to hear consistency in administration is a concern for you. Can you elaborate?
A: One of my biggest accomplishments in the past few years was introducing and passing legislation to consolidate election dates in Arizona. There used to be a wide variety of dates for elections in odd years that depended on the jurisdiction and the race. And what happens to voter turnout in off years? It tanks. More importantly, you have local races that are messaging to a low percentage of voters and you have special interest groups that can really influence and swing the outcome of elections.
We limited the date of candidate election dates from four different possibilities to one date in the fall of the even year and have seen positive results. The City of Scottsdale went from having approximately 22 percent voter turnout to 68 percent voter turnout. There is a quantifiable difference that the consolidation has made with regard to turnout as well as reducing the costs for administering elections. When it comes to increasing turnout—it shouldn’t be about party politics. We have to be careful and diligent that partisan politics doesn’t influence election policy.

Q: What are some of the other election issues in Arizona?
A: We will be looking at the differences of authority between the jurisdictions of the Secretary of State and the Citizens Clean Elections Commission in administering campaign and election law. Right now there is ambiguity as to what agency handles what and that is unfair and confusing for both voters and candidates.
Ballot harvesting is another issue I’m looking at to specifically limit who can collect and turn in ballots and how many. It’s important for maintaining the integrity of the election process, by reducing fraud and ensuring voters have confidence in their system. It is counterintuitive to me that someone can collect and turn in someone else’s ballot. Obviously, there are specific situations in which it may need to be allowed.
I also want to enhance voter information and education as it pertains to ballot measures. In Arizona, our ballot measures are voter-protected, meaning that the legislature cannot make changes to a voter-approved measure without a three-fourths affirmative vote of the legislature and even then only to further enhance its purpose—a very high bar. Most voters don’t realize that a measure is essentially permanent when they vote for it. Over 60 percent of our budget is voter-protected.
When you go into a store to buy something but then are told by the cashier that all sales are final, wouldn’t that make you question if you really want to buy it in the first place?
We also need to clarify our statutes when it comes to voting twice. There was a court case several years ago where someone voted in both Arizona and Colorado, but since our law was not explicit enough the conviction was overturned on appeal. You should not be able to vote twice.

Q: What has Arizona done that are you most proud of when it comes to elections?
A: For me personally, I’m most proud of consolidating our election dates for candidates to the fall of the even year. Election related legislation is very difficult to pass and it should be. It impacts everyone, but there is not exactly an industry to turn to for expertise. You have to go to the voters. It was difficult to do, but we did it.
For Arizona, I’m most proud of the efforts that have been made to inform children of the importance of voting and participating in the electoral process. I believe it is important for children to understand the difference they can make by exercising this fundamental right.