PHOENIX - The Arizona Senate has struck down an effort that would make it harder for voters to recall unpopular incumbents in a rare vote that saw Republicans join Democrats against a GOP priority designed to protect lawmakers, and possibly, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The 18-10 vote Thursday saw seven Republicans cross the aisle to defeat the bill, which seeks to add a primary to all voter-initiated recall elections and would have ensured the incumbent advanced to the general election regardless of the primary outcome. That means rivals from the same political party would have to beat the incumbent twice to win office.
The recall overhaul is slated to take effect retroactively in January 2013 if it becomes law. Supporters hope it will undermine an ongoing effort by opponents of Arpaio to force a recall election.
Arpaio critics said they were thrilled by the Senate vote because Arizona's recall law already makes it difficult to remove politicians.
"I can tell you we are in for the fight," said Lilia Alvarez, an organizer of the Arpaio recall effort. "But, overall, it's not a hill we cannot climb."
Every public officer holding an elective office is subject to recall under Arizona law. To be successful, opponents must gather signatures equaling 25 percent of the ballots cast in the last election within 120 days. Arpaio opponents need to collect more than 350,000 valid signatures by May 30.
Majority Republicans had argued that House Bill 2282 was needed to protect elected officials who are targeted only because of their party affiliation. But some GOP leaders said Thursday that the measure never had a hope of passing because it was unnecessary and unreasonable in that it sought to add additional hurdles to an already difficult process.
"We knew it was dead two weeks ago," said Republican Sen. Rich Crandall of Mesa, who voted against it. "It was the dumbest thing I've ever seen."
Crandall said the measure was pushed by Republicans who are friendly with former Senate President Russell Pearce, who became the first Arizona legislator recalled in 2011. But those without loyalties to Pearce had no interest in the bill, Crandall said.
Arpaio wasn't a rallying factor in the vote because it is unlikely his opponents will be able to force a recall, Crandall said.
"It's hard already," Crandall said of the recall process. "You have to collect so many signatures. That's what protects Arpaio."
Republican Sen. Michele Reagan of Scottsdale said she struggled with the provision that an incumbent could still advance to a general election after losing a primary.
"The bill didn't make sense to me," she said. "I couldn't figure out how it was going to work."
There was no debate before the vote Thursday. Republicans had defended the measure Tuesday during a committee meeting.
"The rest of us go out there and we run in primaries, which are doggone tough, and then we get to go run in generals, which are doggone tough," Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough of Chandler said at the time. "So that's how people get elected if they have opponents in primaries."
Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix, an outspoken critic of the measure, said the effort to allow incumbents to participate in the general election regardless of their primary finish likely killed the bill. That provision was added by a floor amendment on Tuesday.
"The recall statute was never intended to be partisan," Gallardo said after the vote Thursday.
Republicans could bring the bill back before the Senate next week. The Arizona House passed the measure in a 36-23 vote in March with Democrats opposed to the measure.
Arpaio was elected in November to his sixth consecutive term in office. He has said voters won't be fooled by the recall effort.