PHOENIX — Arizonans who forget to sign their early ballots before dropping them in the mail are entitled to up to five days to “cure’’ the problem and get their votes counted, a federal judge has ruled.

Judge Douglas Rayes pointed out that Arizona law already gives people whose signatures on ballot envelopes do not match county records that same five-day grace period to resolve the problem. The judge said he sees no difference or additional burden created by the small of additional people walking into county election offices to fix their mistake.

And Rayes pointed out that election officials already provide an opportunity, right up until 7 p.m. on Election Day, for those who forgot to sign their ballot envelopes to come to county offices.

“The state has not shown that continuing to implement these existing cure procedures for an additional five business days after an election is likely to impose meaningful administrative burdens on election officials given the relatively small number of ballots at issue,’’ the judge wrote.

In fact, he pointed out that in 2018, just 2,435 ballots statewide were rejected because they arrived in unsigned envelopes.

The ruling, issued late Thursday, is most immediately a victory for the Arizona Democratic Party, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who asked Rayes to block election officials from rejecting unsigned early ballots.

In filing suit, attorney Alexis Danneman conceded the issue is political.

“It is inevitable that Democrats, or those who would vote for Democrats, will not have their vote couted as a result of defendants’ failure to allow voters to cure missing signatures after Election Day,’’ she wrote in June. The result, she said, is that the party will be less likely in its “mission to help elect Democratic candidates to public office.’’

The partisan nature of the fight did not go unnoticed by the Republican National Committee, the Arizona Republican Party and the Donald J. Trump for President committee, all of whom intervened to fight the effort.

But it was Attorney General Mark Brnovich, also a Republican, who became the prime defender of keeping that Election Day deadline. Brnovich already has filed an appeal in hopes of keeping Rayes’ ruling from taking effect at this year’s general election.

Rayes said states are allowed to regulate elections.

“The Constitution protects the right to vote, but not the right to vote in any manner one chooses,’’ he said. The key, the judge said is balancing “the individual’s right to vote with the need for rules ordering the process.’’

“Here, there is nothing generally or inherently difficult about signing an envelope by Election Day,’’ Rayes said. And the fact that more than 99% of voters manage to do that shows that the law imposes only “minimal burdens.’’

But the judge rejected arguments that the deadline is necessary to prevent fraud. In fact, he noted that attorneys for the state concede that most elections are not plagued by fraud and that fraud generally is not suspected based on the number of ballots returned without signatures.

“The state is not preventing fraud by discarding these ballots without giving voters a meaningful opportunity to supply their missing signatures,’’ Rayes said.

There was a split, however, among county election officials about providing that additional five days.

On one side, Coconino County Recorder Patty Hansen said she saw no significant burden or impact on her ability to meet deadlines to certify election results. And officials from Navajo and Apache counties also supported providing additional time.

But Chris Roads, Pima County’s deputy recorder, said it would create a significant administrative burden. He said that it would require staffers to locate the unsigned ballot, something that can be handled only with workers of two different parties present.

Rayes noted, however, that Roads said Pima County rejected only 75 ballots in 2018 due to a missing signatures. The judge said that doesn’t qualify as a significant enough burden to justify the Election Day deadline.

The bottom line, Rayes said, is that voting is a “fundamental right.’’

“And the right to vote necessarily includes the right to have one’s legitimately cast vote counted,’’ he wrote, saying that the loss of someone’s vote “constitutes an irreparable harm,’’ one easily minimized by giving people that extra five days.


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