J.D. Mesnard, a Republican state senator in Arizona, couldn’t hide his disappointment that a high-powered group of Phoenix business leaders had signed onto a letter calling a bill of his — one that significantly beefs up identification requirements for voting by mail — an attempt at “voter suppression cloaked as reform.”
“That exact phrasing that was used is beyond disappointing,” a wounded Mesnard told TPM over the phone Tuesday.
“I know those guys, at least some of them, that signed the letter,” the senator said. “I’ve got a reasonably good relationship with them. Don’t always agree on every issue. But that specific phraseology — how that’s characterized, my intent being questioned — is beyond offensive.”
The senator was peeved at something Republicans in Arizona and around the country have begun to note in recent weeks: Their friends and allies in the business community were feeling the heat from voting rights activists. And, in some cases, they’ve started speaking up to keep customers and employees happy.
In Arizona, legislation pushed by Mesnard and others that would make it harder to vote by mail has prompted pushback from businesses. The method of voting is quite popular in the state and works well — most ballots in Arizona are cast by mail. And while voters currently need only to sign their names to their ballot envelopes, Mesnard’s bill would require them to include their date of birth and an identification number, like their voter ID number or a driver license number, as further verification.
Another bill, from Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R) could remove tens of thousands of voters deemed inactive from the Permanent Early Voting List, a roll of voters who automatically receive ballots by mail.
For Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwell, former Petsmart CEO Phil Francis and dozens of others, those bills warranted some protest.
The corporate leaders were among those who signed onto the opposition letter Friday from Greater Phoenix Leadership, a well-known business group in the state. The letter, “Disenfranchising Voters is not ‘Election Reform,’” quoted from a March op-ed of the same name. And it didn’t mince words.
“The onslaught of voter suppression measures that have been introduced or entertained this session has been alarming,” the broadside read.
“Attempts to disenfranchise Arizona voters is not ‘election reform’ and cannot be tolerated. Further, pandering to those who willfully choose to perpetuate misleading or inaccurate information cannot continue. True leaders will play an important role in sharing the truth: our election system in Arizona works.”
‘The Hope Is That Corporate America Can Learn’
Hanging over the new business opposition to the elections bills is the PR catastrophe that several large corporations saw unfold in Georgia in light of the new voting law signed by Gov. Brian Kemp (R) last month.
Big-name businesses in the state, including Coca-Cola and Delta, put out milquetoast statements while the bill was being debated in the legislature — only to face harsh criticism from Black executives and activists after the bill was signed into law.
“It does feel like there’s a little bit of a window of opportunity created by the fact that companies just utterly screwed up in their response to what was happening in Georgia, and then saw what the backlash was like,” said Emily Kirkland, executive director of the activist group Progress Arizona. “And then here we are in Arizona, and these bills are still very live and moving through the process.”
“The hope is that corporate America can learn from that experience,” Kirkland added.
“The most important thing is that companies need to come out before the bill passes, and be really specific that they oppose XYZ bill, and be willing to halt donations to the legislators sponsoring them.”
‘A Whole Other Kind Of Voter Suppression’
Still, even the smallest rift in the corporate-Republican alliance sent shockwaves through the state.
Rep. John Kavanagh (R), perhaps best known in this debate for his comment to CNN about the “quality” of votes being as important a the quantity, was indignant. He described Greater Phoenix Leadership’s letter as “inflammatory.”
For one thing, Kavanagh told TPM, some of the GOP-sponsored bills that the corporate leaders objected to are no longer live — they won’t reach the governor’s desk.
Two bills discussed in the letter that have a real shot at passage, Mesnard’s SB 1713 and Ugenti-Rita’s SB 1485, could still be changed before a final vote, Kavanagh said.
“The people on there should know better,” he told TPM of the GPL letter. “These are not political novices, you know. I mean, they’re saying, not hearing those three bills, and holding off and requiring amendments on the other two, they characterize us taking part in a ‘concerted effort’ to sow additional doubt about our elections?”
Kavanagh, who chairs the House Government and Elections committee, raged in particular at his opponents’ view that SB 1485 would lead to a Permanent Early Voting List “purge.” (The bill would remove voters from the list if they don’t participate in mail-in voting in two consecutive primary and general elections, and if they don’t respond to a notice from election officials.)
Voting rights advocates have pointed out that voters skip elections for any number of reasons. Independents, for example, often choose not to participate in partisan primary elections, and young people such as Mormons on mission trips may leave the state and forget to change their address.
“People on missions are not sucked into a black hole where they are in total lack of communication with their former residence,” Kavanagh said.
Mesnard, speaking for his bill, conceded to TPM that he wasn’t aware of any specific instances of fraud that his proposal would have prevented.
Still, he said, “I’ve heard lots of stories from other people who believe they’ve seen it. And the challenge with fraud is, once it’s baked in, especially in the form in an early ballot, it’s hard to undo that. The ship has sailed at that point.”
What’s more, the senator argued, thousands of Arizonans have “lost faith” in the system.
“If we just ignore that, that’s a whole other kind of voter suppression.”