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Under new law, Arizona cities and town clerks must open on weekend before election. No one knows why.

City and town clerks are begging state lawmakers to fix a new law enacted last month that will require their offices to be open at a time when they don’t provide any election services.

Two people walk toward the front entrance of a building with trees and signs in front of the building.
Voters walk into the Town Hall Post Office in Paradise Valley to cast their ballots for the 2022 midterm election. While town buildings sometimes serve as polling locations, town clerks don't provide many election services for county, state or federal elections in Arizona. Clerks are asking state lawmakers to change a new law that requires their offices to be open the weekend before federal elections. (Olivier Touron / AFP via Getty Images)

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Arizona lawmakers last month rushed to enact an emergency fix to a looming crisis with the state’s election timeline. Now, city and town clerks across Arizona say the legislation passed to fix that problem has created a new one that will unnecessarily cost taxpayers.

The emergency law requires county, city, and town clerks’ offices to be open the weekend before this month’s presidential preference election, and all federal elections until 2026, even though city and town clerks don’t provide any services before election day.

City and town clerks across the state, who weren’t involved in the last-minute negotiations for the new law, are now begging state lawmakers to fix it — and quickly, as they are already arranging staffing for the weekend before the March 19 election.

A bill to make a few changes to the new law passed the state Senate this week, but still needs to go through the House. And that version doesn’t clearly remove the requirement for cities’ and towns’ offices to be open the weekend before election day.

The new requirement for cities and towns came as state lawmakers and Gov. Katie Hobbs made several tweaks to state law designed to condense the election calendar to make enough time for new statewide recounts. To do so, they shortened the timeline for voters to fix issues with their mail-in ballot signatures and provisional ballots from five business days to five calendar days. To offset the lost days, the new law requires that cities, towns, and counties be open the entire weekend before and after the election to provide these services.

But in Arizona, counties run elections, and cities and towns don’t handle ballots or voter records for federal, state, and county elections. City and town clerks sometimes partner with their county in order to allow voters to correct provisional ballot issues in their office, but that occurs in extremely rare instances, and only after the election.

That means that before the election, city and town clerks will be required to open on the weekend before the election without any voter services to provide. In smaller cities and towns, where there is just one employee in the clerk’s office, the new law means clerks must work 19 days straight, from March 11 to March 29, and will perhaps be the only person present in their city and town halls, raising security concerns.

That’s the case for Wickenburg Town Clerk Amy Brown, one of the clerks who emailed the Secretary of State’s Office with concerns about the new law. Hiring security or a second staff member would cost money the city didn’t budget, she said in an interview.

“We recently had a very credible threat from a member of the public threatening staff and he even had a hit list,” Brown wrote to the Secretary of State’s Office in an email Votebeat obtained through a public records request. “I think it is a danger for someone to be at Town Hall alone in order to have it open.”

In her time as clerk, spanning three election cycles, Brown said she has never had a voter come to her office to cure their provisional ballot. Asked why she thinks her office would be required to be open the weekend before the election, Brown said she didn’t know.

“I have no idea,” she said.

Hobbs, a Democrat, requested the provision in the new law, according to Jen Marson, executive director with the Arizona Association of Counties. Asked why, a spokesperson for Hobbs’ office said she “fought to enfranchise voters by giving them every opportunity to have their voice heard.”

“While we understand clerks’ offices are currently only used to cure conditional provisional ballots, there is no prohibition on clerks’ offices being used to cure early ballot issues in the future,” spokesperson Sophia Solis said in a statement, adding that “stakeholders are working to clarify in the trailer bill that if a clerk’s office is only used to cure conditional provisionals, it need not be open the weekend before the election.”

State Rep. Alex Kolodin, a Republican, sponsored the bill to fix the timeline issue that ultimately became law. Asked about the issue, he said that lawmakers were still looking at it and reviewing the cities’ and towns’ requests.

“Cities and towns had months to engage on the process and that engagement was unfortunately more limited than we would have liked, and the fact that they are coming to us now with requests that we are analyzing is unfortunate,” Kolodin said.

Cities and towns weighed in on the election timeline problem in the fall, when it was first being discussed, but at the time there was no proposal for their clerks’ offices to be open the weekend before the election. That came in the last few weeks before the bill passed.

“We were never asked to be at the table, never invited to be at the table,” said René Guillen, a deputy director with the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. When the League saw the language, released publicly just one week before the bill passed, they were concerned that this was an unfunded mandate as well as a waste of taxpayer resources.

Even larger cities and towns only get a few voters in their office for the provisional curing service, said Nancy Davidson, general counsel for the League. Davidson and Guillen have been helping the Secretary of State’s Office collect cities’ and towns’ feedback on the law.

The House has scheduled a special committee meeting on Monday that may take up the issue. The House is otherwise not planning to meet next week because of an Israel trip many lawmakers are attending.

If the issue isn’t fixed next week, that puts clerks’ offices in a tricky position with staffing.

In Avondale, for example, which is typically open for four-day work weeks, the clerk’s office is planning to split the six extra weekend days between six staff members, according to clerk Marcella Sarmiento. That means staff working over the first weekend will plan to take off time during the week of March 11, to even out their hours, Sarmiento said.

They’re unlikely to have many people to help over the weekend. In the 10 years she has worked in clerks’ offices, five as clerk for Avondale and five in the clerk’s office in Peoria, Sarmiento said a voter has only come in for help with their provisional ballot once.

To fill their time on the weekend, her staff plans to take on busy work, such as scanning and data entry, she said.

“Fingers crossed” a bill to fix the issue is passed, Sarmiento said. But if not, she said, “we do what we have to do for our voters.”

Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at jfifield@votebeat.org.

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