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Voting at the Mesa Community College polling place. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)

Arizona elections officials should suspend plans to help voters in nursing homes and hospitals cast ballots through video calls, Gov. Doug Ducey said in a letter to Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.

Arizona provides what are known as “special election boards” to people in hospitals and long-term care facilities, allowing them to cast a vote in person outside of a traditional polling place.

But this year, long-term care facilities across the country, and in Arizona, were hit hard by COVID-19. Earlier this month, Maricopa County surpassed 1,000 deaths in long-term care facilities due to COVID-19.

Visitor restrictions at these places can make the job more difficult for special election boards, they but aren’t entirely stopping the practiceand in some places they are adjusting with technology.

Special election boards set up by Arizona counties provide a team, made up of two people from different political parties, who come to long-term care facilities, hospitals or other places where voters aren’t able to get to the polls themselves because of an illness or disability, and help the person cast a ballot from their location.

At least some counties, including Maricopa and Pima, plan to let residents using the special election boards cast their vote in person or on a video call. A voter could use a video call to tell the board how to mark their ballot marked, for example, if the voter cannot mark it himself or herself.

But Ducey raised objections about this plan in a letter to Hobbs on Monday, pointing to a section of state law that says a special election board’s services must be “delivered to the elector in person.”

The governor said additional funding provided by the state to help election officials deal with the impact of COVID-19 was meant in part to ensure officials have adequate resources to ensure safe and secure in-person special election board services.

“These policy changes should be suspended immediately so that Arizonans can continue to have confidence and faith in the integrity of our election system,” wrote Ducey, a Republican.

Hobbs, in a letter to Ducey, replied that the governor’s concerns came as a surprise because her office worked with the state Department of Health Services to develop guidelines for special election boards.

“I believe this guidance will, if necessary, protect the voting rights of those who rely on an SEB to vote and is within the reasonable contours of state law. The guidance also minimizes the potential number of voters who may use this process,” Hobbs wrote.

Hobbs said her office recommended special election boards use videoconferencing technology in certain circumstances: If the board is not permitted inside a care facility or hospital due to COVID-19; if the voter is not comfortable receiving assistance in person due to concerns about the virus; and if there is not a trusted caregiver, family member or fellow resident to provide help.

The secretary of state went on to argue that videoconferencing has been allowed for parts of government to perform other functions that the law says must be conducted in person, pointing as an example to opinions from the attorney general about government meetings held online.

Hobbs said that Ducey should issue an executive order authorizing the videoconferencing process if he believes it is not currently legal, get the Department of Health Services to issue directives facilitating voting in long-term care facilities or approve some other solution.

Counties trying to adapt to restrictions

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said her office was trying to adapt special election boards due to restrictions on visitors in some places. During the primary election, some facilities wouldn’t even accept mail, she said.

For those that have restrictions, the special election boards were planning to communicate with a voter inside a facility using video chat to help them fill out the ballot, she said. A person who couldn’t physically fill out the ballot could dictate their choices to the special elections board via video chat, for instance.

Rodriguez said if special election boards can’t help voters in facilities with visitor restrictions, those voters are being treated differently, she said.

“We’re disenfranchising voters because of what? Of something that was approved in 2019, by December? Nobody even knew about COVID,” she said, referring to the state’s election procedures manual, which was authored before the pandemic.

In the 2016 general election, more than 300 people in Maricopa County requested to vote via special election boards, according to Diana Solorio, public information officer for the Maricopa County Recorder.

Every facility has different rules for visitors, Solorio said, so the special election boards work to accommodate voters and help them find a way to cast a ballot. COVID-19 has changed how voting looks in many ways, like poll workers with face coverings and shields, and the special election boards are no different, she said.

Special election boards will come to facilities wearing masks and gloves. They will put ballots cast into Ziploc bags, which are quarantined until it’s time to tabulate them, Solorio said. Workers will follow any rules set by long-term care facilities or hospitals, and take safety precautions on their end as well, she said.

“Everybody’s making these extra precautions for safety reasons, and we are happy to accommodate it. We all want to be safe, and also maintain everyone’s right to vote, assist with exercising the right to vote,” Solorio said.

Earlier this month, Pima County contacted 200 assisted living facilities to help register residents to vote.

The recorder’s office encouraged people who live in these facilities or who have loved ones who do to begin planning early for how to vote this year.

“This is a critical election at both the national and local level. Every eligible voter who wishes to participate should be allowed to do so in a safe fashion,” Rodriguez said.

How to request a special election board in Maricopa County: 

  • To request a special election board in Maricopa County, call 602-506-1511, where a representative will collect your information and then contact you to make arrangements. Boards will begin meeting with voters on Oct. 7, when early voting begins. Requests must be made by Oct. 23. If you live outside Maricopa County, contact your county recorder’s office for assistance.
  • Those seeking the service in Maricopa County can also email [email protected], and include “special election board” in the subject line. Provide your name, residence address, delivery address, date of birth and phone number.
  • If you’re comfortable voting by mail, requesting a mailed ballot is always an option regardless of your location. You can request a mailed ballot for a single election or join the Permanent Early Voting List at ServiceArizona.com. 

Information comes from the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office’s Frequently Asked Questions page. 

Reach reporter Rachel Leingang by email at [email protected] or by phone at 602-444-8157, or find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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