PHOENIX - A Republican-dominated Arizona House committee took the first step toward repealing a sweeping 2013 election law Thursday, touching off the next wave of a political battle over voters' rights.
The election law was cobbled together from several GOP bills on the final day of the legislative session last year and passed without a single Democratic vote.
The measure trimmed Arizona's permanent early voting list, removes infrequent voters from a list of those allowed to vote by mail and makes it a crime for voter-outreach groups to turn in ballots. It also made it harder for third-party candidates and voter initiatives to get on the ballot.
Opponents, including Democrats, third-party candidates and even some conservative Republicans, sponsored a ballot initiative to asking voters to repeal the measure at the ballot in November. But they're upset over the legislative repeal proposal, considering it a thinly veiled effort to sidestep voters and retain some of the provisions that voters' rights groups object to most.
"We do not want to see it repealed and re-enacted piecemeal and that seems to be the direction this is going," Sandy Bahr, the Sierra Club's Arizona director, told members of the House Judiciary Committee before the 4-2 party-line vote with Republicans in favor.
"I don't think what is in here, maybe the small part that may be worthwhile, is worth slapping the voters in the face," she said.
Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, who sponsored the bill, said those concerns were misplaced.
"I wholeheartedly reject the fact that this is a slap in the face of the voters. I think it's inflammatory," he said. "We heard that people don't like this bill as it's structured; We're repealing. There is no nefarious attempt that I'm aware of, there's no scheming going on that I'm aware of."
Julie Erfle, who chaired the Protect Your Right to Vote committee that gathered more than 146,000 signatures in a successful effort to refer the election bill to voters, told Farnsworth she believe he's sincere but isn't as sure about the rest of the GOP members.
"I sincerely appreciate that it is your intent not to re-enact," Erfle said. "Unfortunately other members of the caucus have not been so upfront."
For his part, Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, said he doesn't intend to support re-enacting any of the provisions this year, but hopes other changes are taken up next year.
Pierce is running for secretary of state, the state's chief elections officer.
Activists are worried about what will happen next if a repeal passes.
"We have not gotten any commitment for certain that if they repeal this, that they're not going to go back and pass it in smaller pieces," said Jennifer Loredo with the Arizona Education Association.
Rep. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix said the repeal is a power grab by the Republican majority.
"They're afraid of what's going to happen if the voters do turn out in November, they're afraid the voters are going to reject this bill. They're afraid that this might be voter protected," Quezada said.
But Farnsworth said he doesn't know of any plans by Republicans to push similar bills through in the future.
"I have no knowledge of any concerted effort to break this bill apart and start running them through. It doesn't mean it won't happen, it doesn't mean individuals won't sponsor pieces," he said.
The bill now goes to the full House after a routine review. If passed into law the referendum would be removed from the November ballot.