The Rise and Fall of Mail-in Voting in Arizona

A blue mailbox with two mail-in ballots marked with a red X against a background of red targets.

On Aug. 2, Arizona held its primary elections. On the Republican side, Kari Lake (R) won the primary for governor and will face Katie Hobbs (D) in November. She’ll be joined on the Republican ticket by state Rep. Mark Finchem (R), who is running for secretary of state. Neither candidate recognizes President Joe Biden as the legitimate president. Both candidates have attacked the use of mail-in voting in Arizona and run on platforms promising to “secure” the vote. Lake has endorsed implementing a single day of in-person voting and Finchem wants to restrict mail-in voting. There’s not a shred of evidence to support any of their claims, but their attacks on mail-in voting ignore an uncomfortable truth. Not only is mail-in voting well-established and popular in Arizona — it used to be championed by the very party that now seek to dismantle it.

Mail-in voting has a long history in Arizona.

Unlike other states like Pennsylvania, where mail-in voting is a relatively new phenomenon, Arizona has had it for years. Like other western states like Oregon, Arizona began to experiment with expanded mail-in voting at the end of the 20th century. In 1991, the state enacted a law allowing all voters to vote by mail without an excuse. It passed with large bipartisan majorities in both houses of the Arizona Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Fife Symington (R). Previously, voters had to have an excuse to cast mail-in ballots. Now, for the first time, any voter in the state could choose to vote by mail if they wanted to.

Arizona built on the success of this law by enacting House Bill 2106 in 2007 at the urging of voters and county election officials from both parties. This law created the Permanent Early Voting List, allowing any voter to opt to be added to the list in order to automatically receive a mail-in ballot for every election. Like the 1991 law establishing no-excuse mail-in voting, H.B. 2106 passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Janet Napolitano (D). The list proved highly popular — as of 2022, 75% of voters in Arizona are on it.

Thanks to these laws, early voting by mail is the most popular way to vote in Arizona — nearly 90% of Arizonans voted early in 2020, the majority by mail. Arizona’s system is highly sophisticated and secure, with multiple systems in place to ensure security.

Republicans in Arizona used to champion mail-in voting.

From the very beginning, Republicans were strong advocates for mail-in voting. For many political strategists, this option was seen as a way to boost turnout among older voters that may find traveling to a polling location inconvenient as well as retirees who spent part of the year outside of the state — voting blocs that tended to favor Republican candidates. Before the advent of the Permanent Early Voting List, many Republican campaigns made helping voters request mail-in ballots a centerpiece of their get-out-the-vote programs — Gov. Symington’s campaign manager in his 1994 bid for reelection attributed the campaign’s success to mail-in voting.

The popularity of mail-in voting among Republican voters continues to this day. In 2020, the vast majority of the over one million Republicans in the state voted early by mail. As recently as 2018, Republicans in the state defended the state’s voting system from outside attacks. In that year’s election for U.S. Senate, Martha McSally (R) was in the lead on Election Day. As more votes were counted over the following days, however, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) took the lead. While some Republicans like former President Donald Trump cast doubt over the validity of the vote counting in 2018, prominent Republicans in Arizona did not go along, noting the counting of votes after Election Day is normal in the state. McSally conceded the election a week after Election Day without raising any objections.

Republican support for mail-in voting evaporated after 2020.

The contested aftermath of the 2020 presidential election in Arizona, however, led many Republicans in the state to turn against mail-in voting. Like the broader Republican attacks on drop boxes, they took their cue from Trump, who claimed mail-in voting cost him the election in the state. The necessity to bend the knee to Trump required they turn against mail-in voting as well, defying the state’s track record of success.

While conducting a fraudulent “audit” that ended up confirming what we already know — that there is no evidence of fraud in Arizona’s elections — legislators introduced bill after bill to restrict mail-in voting and other aspects of the state’s electoral machinery. This included a bill that would have banned mail-in and early voting for almost all voters and required the state to hand-count all ballots within 24 hours of the polls closing — a requirement that even Republicans conceded was impossible. While that bill didn’t make it out of the Legislature, others did, including a bill that Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed that will allow the state to remove voters from the Permanent Early Voting List merely for not voting in recent elections.

When their efforts to undo mail-in voting through the legislative process failed, Republicans turned to the courts. In February, the Arizona GOP filed a lawsuit in the Arizona Supreme Court alleging that early voting is barred by the state constitution. After the state Supreme Court declined to take the case, the GOP filed a second attempt in a lower state court. After the trial court judge found that mail-in voting doesn’t violate the state constitution, Republicans appealed the decision and litigation is ongoing.

Attacks on mail-in voting is just another example of Republican hypocrisy.

With election deniers and conspiracy theorists leading the Republican ticket this November and the Republican Party’s lawsuit still making its way through the courts, attempts to dismantle the state’s successful mail-in voting system aren’t going away anytime soon. But tracing the history of mail-in voting in the state reveals the current Republican stance to be nothing but hypocrisy. Republicans used to be fine with mail-in voting when Arizona reliably voted for Republicans. But the moment a Democrat won, everything changed. Clearly, the only voting methods Republicans are okay with are the ones that reliably lead to Republican wins.

Ironically, no one demonstrates this better than Lake herself. Prior to the primary election, she cast doubt about the validity of the results, telling her supporters that “we’re already detecting some fraud.” She continued to make unsubstantiated claims of fraud on Election Day when early returns showed her opponent with a lead. But as more early ballots were counted and Lake took the lead, her claims of fraud suddenly vanished.