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PHOENIX -- Republican lawmakers approved a measure Thursday that would make felons out of people who return the early ballots of others to the polls.

The 34-23 House vote, with every Democrat present opposed, was propelled by arguments that the current system is ripe for fraud. Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, also sided with foes

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, cited testimony from Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne who spoke during a prior attempt to enact this provision. She told lawmakers there have been situations where individuals claiming to be county election workers have gone door-to-door trying to pick up ballots.

"This is a problem,'' he said.

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, said allowing strangers to take someone's ballot would allow them to decide which ones to keep and which ones to throw away. In fact, he said someone might decide to throw away the ballots of all women.

By contrast, Rep. Debbie McCune Davis said the state should not be erecting barriers to voting.

HB 2023 makes it a Class 6 felony to handle anyone else's voted or unvoted ballot. There are exceptions for family members, those in the same household and professional caregivers.

"This bill criminalizes the act of assisting a person in casting a ballot unless they fit into a designated category,'' she said. "The practical impact of this legislation may be to suppress voting and should be examined.''

Rep. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said it's not always easy for people to get their ballots back in the mail on time. She said there are many areas of the state where people have to go to the post office to get their mail.

And Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, put a number on that, saying it would affect at least 10,000 people in her district, largely in the San Luis area.

But Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, had no sympathy.

He noted the issue involves early ballots which voters specifically request be delivered to their homes as an alternative to going to the polls. Borrelli said there is plenty of time for people to review the ballots, fill them out and get them back in the mail.

And he rejected the contention that it's too difficult to mail it back. He said these same people have to find ways to get other things to the post office.

"I don't understand how you pay your bills out there,'' Borrelli said.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

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