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Feb 12, 2013 9:27 PM by Associated Press

Senate panel approves bill barring early ballot pickups

PHOENIX (AP) - A divided Arizona Senate panel passed a bill Tuesday barring groups from collecting early ballots from voters for delivery to county election officials.

The party-line, 4-3 vote in the Senate Elections Committee came after a heated debate, with Democrats saying the measure suppressed minority voters and Republicans arguing it provided commonsense protections for individual ballots.

The bill by Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, makes it a felony for anyone other than a relative who lives with the voter to deliver an early ballot for them. That would prevent voting groups that typically work to boost turnout in mainly minority communities from picking up early ballots.

Reagan, who chairs the committee, argued the bill was needed because ballots are sacrosanct and other states already bar the practice.

"We have a chain of custody in place for ballots once they go to the polling center. They're treated like they're sacred," Reagan said. "But yet we're just going to allow people to go collect laundry baskets full of ballots and drop them off?"

Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said arguments raised by Republicans that they were trying to prevent voter fraud and free up election staff who are hindered by a cascade of last-minute deliveries of early ballots are a smoke screen. Other bills that are moving through the Legislature and drawing objections from Democrats include one that would purge the permanent early voting list and another requiring requests to be on that list be notarized.

"There's a dirty little secret behind these bills. Their true intent is to lower the number of people participating in our elections," Gallardo said. "We're going to keep focusing on them, but we're going to ask the Department of Justice to monitor them."

Three unrelated elections bills also won approval Tuesday.

One would bar the state's chief election officer, the secretary of state, from serving on a political committee. Current Secretary of State Ken Bennett served on Mitt Romney's committee last year, and in 2008, Gov. Jan Brewer sat on Sen. John McCain's committee while she was secretary of state.

That raised conflict-of-interest issues that the bill is designed to address. Committee members discussed expanding the measure to cover other election officials when it reaches the Senate floor.

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