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Arizona Republican Party wants to throw out the way 90% of voters cast a ballot

GOP chair Kelli Ward's suit contends mail-in voting is unconstitutional. Elections expert warns elimination could be 'catastrophic.' Alan Dershowitz is involved

PHOENIX — The Arizona Republican Party wants to do away with the most popular form of voting in Arizona. 

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Mohave County, the party is asking a judge to throw out the state's 31-year-old system of mail-in voting before the November election.

Up to 90% of all Arizona voters vote with early ballots. Most mail in their ballot, others drop off the ballot at a polling place

A leading elections expert says eliminating the way millions of people vote could be catastrophic.

Here's what we know: 

If you think you've heard about this lawsuit: You have. 

In late February, the state Republican Party and Chairman Kelli Ward tried to bypass lower courts by asking the Arizona Supreme Court to take up the lawsuit. Last month, the high court rejected the request, telling Ward's lawyers to file in lower courts.  

Why now?

 Arizonans have been casting early ballots via mail since 1991 when the Legislature allowed absentee voting that didn't require an excuse. 

The practice took off in the mid-2000s, with the creation of the permanent early voter list, which automatically sent an election ballot to voters who were on the list.

But it's only been in the last two years, since Donald Trump's defeat, that Republicans nationwide have targeted early voting. Trump and his supporters have promoted the falsehood that fraudulent mail-in ballots were a factor in his defeat.

What lawsuit says

In the complaint's first sentence, lawyers for the Arizona Republican Party and Chairman Kelli Ward offer this disclaimer: It's "not designed to benefit or harm the electoral prospects of any political party." 

The 51-page lawsuit contends that the 1991 state law violates the Arizona Constitution and the "constitutionally mandated Australian Ballot System."

What Arizona Constitution says

"All elections by the people shall be by ballot, or by such other method as may be prescribed by law; Provided, that secrecy in voting shall be preserved." 

What's the potential impact

I spoke with Tammy Patrick, a senior elections adviser at the non-profit Democracy Fund and a former legal compliance official in the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.

"It would be, at the best, incredibly problematic, and at the worst case, it could be catastrophic," she said of throwing out mail-in voting just months before an election.

The greatest risk, in Patrick's view, is voters losing faith in elections:

"That's going to cast doubt (among) citizens on whether their elections are truly for them. Because it's their process. And they have shown us by the way that they've chosen to vote, that's the method they want to vote in. 

"So if that were to be taken away from them, I think it would cause a backlash from voters who would potentially throw up their hands in disgust and walk away from the process. And that would be my greatest fear."

Patrick is scheduled to testify on the 2022 elections Thursday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. The committee handles legislation related to the running of federal elections.

Why was the suit filed in Mohave County?

It could be a coincidence, but Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward lives in Lake Havasu City, in northwestern Arizona's Mohave County. 

Ward seems to believe in home-field advantage.

Here's what she told a Republican legislative district meeting in Surprise Tuesday night about another election-related lawsuit, according to audio obtained by 12 News:

"They're fighting it in Yavapai County. We like that, because Yavapai County is a lot more conservative, sadly than many places in Maricopa County."

Mohave County is even more conservative than Yavapai: Trump got 75 percent of the vote in Mohave in 2020, his largest county share in Arizona.

It might not matter

One judge (appointed by the governor) will hear the case, and lawyers say it might be shipped back to Maricopa County.

Why is Alan Dershowitz involved?

The one-time celebrity trial lawyer, now a Trump defender, is listed as an attorney for Ward and the state Republican Party. 

In an email to 12 News, Dershowitz said: "I was retained to analyze the constitutionality of Arizona's no-excuse mail-in voting under the Arizona Constitution."

What Katie Hobbs is saying

Arizona's Democratic secretary of state, as well as the top elections officials in Arizona's 15 counties, are named as defendants in the lawsuit. 

Hobbs' office provided this response:

"The majority of Arizona voters choose to vote by mail because they know it’s secure. Election deniers who are determined to undermine our elections seem to have no end in sight in their attempt to add barriers to voting. Regardless of where these lawsuits take place, I will continue fighting to ensure that all eligible voters have equal access to the ballot.” 

A Maricopa County elections spokeswoman said the county didn't comment on active litigation.

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