Supporters of former President Donald Trump protest in front of the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 7, 2020.
Olivier Touron/AFP—Getty Images
May 11, 2021 8:58 PM EDT

Arizona’s governor signed a bill Tuesday that could take more than 100,000 infrequent mail voters off a voting list that automatically delivers ballots by mail to voters—in a state where President Joe Biden clinched victory in 2020 by less than 11,000 votes. Arizona follows Georgia, Texas and Florida in enacting voting restrictions under the guise of “election integrity” over the last few weeks.

Arizona has ensured that all eligible voters receive ballots by mail in every election cycle for more than a decade through its Permanent Early Voting List (PEVL). Many of Arizona’s voters—more than 70%—are on this list and almost 90% voted by mail in 2020.

The new law changes the list’s name to Active Early Voting List (AEVL) and requires that election officials notify voters who have not voted by mail in two consecutive election cycles that they will be removed from the list; voters have 90 days to respond and say they want to be kept on the list. Otherwise, they are removed.

Voting rights advocates broadly criticize the law, and are particularly concerned that the way the law is written—that if you do not cast an early ballot in any elections, for two consecutive election cycles, you will be kicked off the list. “If you vote in person that will still trigger the provisions of this [law] to begin the process of purging you from the list,” says Alex Gulotta, Arizona state director for All Voting is Local. That is “insidious,” he adds.

“Despite all the deceptive and heated rhetoric being used by some partisan activists to lobby against this reform, not a single Arizona voter will lose their right to vote as a result of this new law,” said Gov. Doug Ducey in a video statement Tuesday. He said that if voters don’t respond to election officials’ notification that they may be removed, they will still remain a registered voter and can request an early ballot or show up at the polls in person on election day.

Arizona’s Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs had urged Ducey to veto the bill, saying in a letter last month that “Arizona’s vote-by-mail system is tried and true, and the changes proposed in this bill aren’t just unnecessary—they’re detrimental to voters.”

“While some would try to portray this bill as cleaning up the voter rolls, it does no such thing,” Hobbs said. “In fact, Arizona already has a process to ensure that voter registrations are current, a process that prevents truly inactive voters from receiving a ballot in the mail.”

Voter purges have often been used as a way to clean up voter rolls by deleting names. But they are often flawed in their implementation, which can be inaccurate, secretive and lacking oversight. At least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute focused on democracy.

The new law comes as the state’s Republican-controlled Senate is conducting an audit of its presidential election results despite no evidence of widespread fraud. The U.S. Department of Justice and voting rights advocates have expressed concern over potential voter intimidation and ballot security issues related to the audit. The CEO of the Florida-based ‘Cyber Ninjas’ group carrying it out has previously supported baseless conspiracy theories about the election.

Concern from voting rights advocates

Voting rights advocates are worried that the law will ultimately harm voter turnout, particularly because many Arizona voters never really go to a polling place. “They vote by mail all the time, their contact with the voting system is their ballot showing up in the mail,” says Gulotta. If their ballot stops coming in the mail—especially if they’re an infrequent voter—they could end up not participating in the election. Gulotta says that instead of purging infrequent voters, the state should be focused on trying to engage them. “We shouldn’t purge people for not voting,” he says.

He also criticizes that election officials are only required to notify voters via postcard if they intend to take them off the PEVL. “That notice is not an effective way to communicate with people, which is why not requiring that you use email and text or phone to connect to contact people belies the impact of the bill,” Gulotta says. “(The law) should say you are required to contact them through any available means because we are about to disenfranchise them and we should not disenfranchise them unless we require the election officials to contact them by all available means.” (The bill says that election officials may contact voters via call, text or email but does not require it.)

Contentious debate over the law

Tensions emerged over the measure in Arizona’s House last month as Democrats raised the impact of the law on minority communities and blamed Republicans for backing the measure because of false theories—pushed by former President Trump—that the 2020 election was plagued by widespread fraud.

Democratic Rep. Reginald Bolding, House minority leader and co-executive director of Arizona Coalition for Change—a Black-led civic engagement organization said in a speech on the House floor that it would be harder for “independent voters, seniors, Native Americans, Black, brown and low income people to vote.” In response, a Republican Rep. Travis Grantham called a point-of-order, saying “I feel personally that motives were arraigned of members, including myself with regards to colored people, Black people, whatever people this individual wants to single out and their ability to vote. And I don’t think it’s correct and I think he should be sat down and he shouldn’t be allowed to speak.”

The interaction drew scrutiny and criticism from voting rights advocates and public figures. “Whenever Democrats or community advocates try to speak about the implications of these bills, and specifically the disproportionate impact on communities of color and the ways that the bills are racist, Republicans shut that down,” says Emily Kirkland, executive director of Progress Arizona.

A video of the exchange also went viral on Twitter with LeBron James tweeting, “This is HOURS after the (Derek Chauvin) verdict!!! Do not stop. We cannot let up. Not for one second.” The bill’s author Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita hit back at James, challenging him to a debate in a public forum.

Corporations weigh in

Like in Texas and Georgia, some corporations have spoken out against voting restrictions. Greater Phoenix Leadership, an organization of leading executives, including Michael Bidwill—owner of the Arizona Cardinals—and Rich Dozer—chairman of the board of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, signed an open letter in early April condemning three Senate bills concerning voting, including the measure that would purge infrequent voters from the Permanent Early Voting List.

“Disenfranchising voters is not election reform,” the coalition said in a statement.

“These proposals are a concerted effort from those in Arizona—and across the nation—who wish to sow additional doubts about our elections in the minds of voters, and feed into the paranoia that has plagued our political discourse over the past several months,” the statement said. “Disturbingly, each of these proposals have one thing in common: making it more difficult for Arizonans to vote.”

Ducey, like other conservative governors, was not moved. “These big businesses have seemed to embrace a static view of elections: freeze the systems the way they are, view any change suspiciously. It’s wrong. dead wrong,” Ducey said in his statement Tuesday.

For voting rights advocates like Gulotta the new law is simply catering to false conspiracy theories in the aftermath of the 2020 election. “The bottom line is that we do better as a country…when every voice is heard, and …creating barriers to voting…are damaging and we shouldn’t do that,” he says. “It’s going to harm a wide cross section of voters, but it’s going to disproportionately impact voters of color. And they don’t want to hear that.”

Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com.

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