Journalists’ Roundtable 08/05/2016

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Join us as three local journalists bring you up to date on the news of the week.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on Arizona Horizon's "Journalists' Roundtable" -- Maricopa County elections officials will not enforce a ban on so-called ballot harvesting and a corporation commissioner hires an attorney to investigate attempts to influence the commission. The "Journalists' Roundtable" is next on "Arizona Horizon."

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Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to Arizona Horizon's "Journalists' Roundtable." I'm Ted Simons. Joining us is Rachel Leingang of the "Arizona Capitol Times," Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services and Mike Sunnucks of the "Phoenix Business Journal." Maricopa County elections officials say they will not enforce a ban on so-called ballot harvesting, Rachel, what's going on here?

Rachel Leingang: So the legislature this year passed and was signed by the governor, a ban on ballot harvesting which is get out the vote method that a lot of Latino and democratic groups uses to collect ballots and drop them off. It was convenient and people didn't forget to send in the ballots. The law is set to go into effect tomorrow but Maricopa County officials and I believe Pima County officials as well have said we're not going to do anything about that, we are not the police, our job is to just to run elections.

Ted Simons: Which is one of the problems with the legislation in the first place, enforcement. Howie?

Howard Fischer: Of course, but it made everyone feel good, we heard tales how Don Chuter said, I want to know what is happening, they're grabbing the ballots and putting them in the microwave with a bowl of water and steaming them open and if they don't like the vote, they're throwing that out. Remember, that's a crime but somehow this is supposed to make them feel better. But for the democratic groups they're concerned that even if the elections officials aren't enforcing it, somebody might. Somebody can go to prison for a year if I pick up your ballot and, Howie, I don't have time to go to the polling place, guess what, I'm going to prison.

Ted Simons: And these are sealed ballots that aren't yours. Families and caregivers and postal workers and elections officials are exempt, but anyone else, you get group of office people together, can't do that.

Mike Sunnucks: It's a partisan issue because Republicans who are convinced there's voter fraud see unions doing it, like Rachel said, Latino groups and college students, those are democratic constituents and harken back to Chicago and Tammany Hall when there was election fraud. So they look at that and this is their answer but the problem is these elections officials are not cops, they can barely count all of the votes and get the precinct open. You see Republicans talking about election fraud; they can't prove it and who can enforce it.

Howard Fischer: I was in court earlier and the federal judge, Judge Reyes said to the state's attorney -- so what evidence do you have there was fraud?

Ted Simons: Hold that thought, because I want to get to the court case in a second here. But the Helen Purcell, the county recorder basically said, I'm not the police.

Rachel Leingang: Interesting, the Secretary of State's Office, their elections director, Spencer, said they're not the police, we didn't expect they would be enforcing the laws but we do think that citizens with their cellphones could make sure that people are following the law. Take videos and all of these popular ways of keeping track of laws as citizens.

Ted Simons: Can you do that at a polling place?

Rachel Leingang: You're not supposed to film within 75 feet of the polling place. I don't know how they would. Powerful cellphones?

Howard Fischer: That's the problem. This is -- this -- that's why some people say it's a solution in search of a problem but somehow we feel good. It's like so many laws we see passed. Hey, we have solved it and now we can go to something else.

Ted Simons: Helen Purcell, the county recorder, said if someone brings a whole big box in, we'll process them just like anything else.

Mike Sunnucks: It's her job to oversee elections and if she thinks there's fraud or something fishy going on, they're supposed to do their job. Understand, they understand the pushback from folks, is this really happening, do they have the resource do it, but it's your job to oversee elections and there's been a lot questions lately since the presidential primary whether the people do their jobs there.

Howard Fischer: Okay, Howie, let's get to the court case, democratic parties state and national, filing suit against this idea of banning ballot collections and or harvesting. Where are we with this?

Howard Fischer: The basis of the lawsuit, is there's a federal law, Voting Rights Act says you may not take actions which disproportionately dilute minority voting. A couple years, the U.S. Supreme Court got rid of preclearance, where we have to get our own laws checked out with the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice essentially blocked a similar law several years ago, and the state agreed not to enforce it. But you have the underlying law about dilution. The democrats went into court and told the judge, look, you have a section two Voting Rights Act problem and a First Amendment problem and a 14th Amendment Problem. And asked the judge to keep it from taking effect at midnight tonight. The judge has taken it under advisement. I was hoping it might -- as of right now, he hadn't ruled on it. But look, the fact is that nobody is ballot harvesting right now. But this is an interesting question. If the judge enjoins it, then we've got to go to a full blown trial to determine if it is illegal.

Ted Simons: If the judge does enjoin it or block it, that would go against what the Republican Party is saying, and they are saying that there may not be direct evidence of fraud but this makes sure there won't be fraud.

Mike Sunnucks: They're convinced there's fraud going on. They just can't prove proof. One thing that is hard, and this came up with the Purcell thing, election officials don't know how or want to enforce it and you can't get prosecutors to go after people. The few voter fraud cases that you see out there, it's some idiot that tries to vote 10 times with a fake I.D., it's nothing that is organized. So they are convinced, but the research hasn't backed it up. And it's hard it see widespread fraud going on. If Howie and I vote and Rachel picks up our ballot, that's not fraud, we're just voting.

Howard Fischer: And this comes down to the politics of it that you mentioned earlier. While some Republican groups have used this in the past, this is largely minority groups and young, elderly, some of the demographics of the Democratic Party and it's hard to believe that there wasn't politics involved by the republican-controlled legislature.

Rachel Leingang: The democrats, the plaintiffs in this case, are going to have to prove that this is primarily affecting the minorities and they didn't seem to have data on that, it was more anecdotal evidence but they don't necessarily have proof either. There's a lack of data on both sides.

Ted Simons: It was interesting, because a judge, seemed curious, why is this law necessary when it's already a crime do what these folks are suspected -- I don't know who these folks are, but suspected of doing it.

Rachel Leingang: I think it goes back to Howie's we want to feel good about having stopped fraud that may or may not exist and we don't need to know it's happening to know that it could happen.

Ted Simons: Integrity, Howie. The integrity of the election.

Howard Fischer: Well it came down to, I think it was Representative Mesnard, who when this thing was being debated in the House. Well it doesn't if people believe it's occurring, and that undermines it. It reminds me of some of the Steven Colbert philosophy, of "truthiness." It's not factually true but I think it's true.

Mike Sunnucks: Where you talk to regular folks, where a lot of the political frustration are out there. You have each side winds up in each state it goes on everywhere. North Carolina and Texas, all over the place, Arizona, and the republicans seem like they want to limit the ability to vote and the democrats want a lot of people to vote and want less rules and go to court and spend time fighting over that and the right to vote is an important thing, integrity is important but it's hard pressed to get the regular folk engaged in this issue.

Ted Simons: I thought the one interesting comment from the Arizona Republican Part was, you don't wait for a break-in before you put a lock on the door.

Howard Fischer: That's true, but you can say that about everything. Laws have a purpose. Laws against murder and assault, and you don't necessarily have to wait until you're assaulted to have the laws. But again, is this feel-good legislation, feel good for the republicans. And that's what this seems to be.

Ted Simons: All right well there will be a verdict on that. Until then, we have a debate coming up Monday, Rachel, the Corporation Commission debate. All five of them around this table debating, hopefully. Until then, we had Commissioner Bob Burns on talking about why he hired an attorney to look at outside influences on the commission. Why did he do it?

Rachel Leingang: First, he hired the attorney but it's paid for by us, the taxpayers, and capped at $95,000. So there could be a somewhat expensive investigation, he wants to see if there's uneven influence on the commission by outside players. Utilities, unregulated entities like solar groups and what that could mean for the commission as a whole.

Ted Simons: Commission and staff itself could be investigated?

Rachel Leingang: No, they say the commission and staff aren't being investigated. Just the outside players and certainly that does have an effect how the commission appears, but Burns himself doesn't have the authority to investigate the commission or the other commissioners.

Ted Simons: And I believe among those to be investigated, the media. Howie, where were you on the night of July 14th.

Howard Fischer: I want you to know we have undue influence on the Corporation Commission which is one of the more boring agencies to cover. We all know that the commission is elected. Like the governor, like the treasurer. And people are going to have influence. Regulated utilities are going to have influence, outside groups like solar are going to have influence and the question that I think Bob would like to have, what is the result of this influence? He's hoping to use this as a jumping off point to perhaps pressure APS, which has not denied it put money into the last election, and b, to have regulation for future disclosure, this is a means to an end.

Ted Simons: You mentioned that most of us would like to know. Not all of us. Most of the commissioners appearing on Monday in our debate don't think APS should give that information out.

Mike Sunnucks: Everyone wonders why that is, some think it's the influence and other reasons for that. They're persons of interest. Not the subjects but how can you investigate money on the regulatory panel and not include staff and fellow members on there and everybody, of course, looks at the electoral and political timing of this. It was well timed politically.

Howard Fischer: Here's the bottom line issue. Everyone says look at Citizens United. Corporations are entitled to give through third parties. But here's the problem, they keep forgetting that Justice Scalia, not exactly a liberal, said in Citizens United you can require disclosure, in fact, the disclosure is good and helps democracy work and yet there are folks running around, not only with this thing, but Senate Bill 1516 that also passed and takes effect about hiding some of these groups that, oh, anonymous speech is good. Well, I like -- I would like to know who is trying to influence my vote.

Rachel Leingang: You mentioned the other commissioners, the candidates for the commission don't agree with him and put Burns in a strange place. He's the only GOP candidate or commissioner who has really shown that he's interested in this and aligning him with the democrats who are running which in terms of reelection, who are your voter here is, I don't know how that plays out in the election, but certainly timed this to be the day before sending out early ballots, I'm not sure who he is courting.

Ted Simons: The other commissioner, he's hired an attorney on our dime. The other commissioners could possibly say, I don't think so.

Rachel Leingang: They might be able to, statutorily, the executive director of the commission is entitled to hire an attorney for each commissioner's duties, however they see them. The other commissioners may not want to weigh in if in the future they may need an attorney.

Mike Sunnucks: You can score political points going against APS. They're a power company and power companies usually do better when they are behind the scenes. Since this money and solar city and all of this stuff has come out, they've been on the forefront and it doesn't hurt a politician's career to go after a power company.

Ted Simons: And Bob Burns has said here and elsewhere that the integrity of the Corporation Commission is at stake. Is that an overstatement?

Howard Fischer: Yes and no. Nobody has suggested that Tom Freese and Doug Little, who were the beneficiaries, that they, a, know where it comes from or b part of soliciting it or, c, APS came to them and said, now that you're elected here's what we want. By the same token, people give money for a reason and even if it's just to elect people they like or access or whatever else, which is tricky when you've the commission which is supposed to be quasi-judicial. There are integrity issues here. It's nice to know who is trying to put someone in one of these five seats.

Ted Simons: You say there are integrity issues here. The public at large, have the public lost confidence.

Rachel Leingang: I don't think that many people know what the Corporation Commission is. First of all, if they're paying attention it, depends on how their personal politics align with the makeup of the commission. If this is solely about integrity, this is two years ago and there's been plenty since then. The timing of this was suspect for a lot of people.

Ted Simons: Help or hurt Bob Burns's reelection?

Mike Sunnucks: I think it helps. I think it sets him apart from everybody else. Whether he's investigating the other guys, or not, they are. This could make them and everybody else look bad. But people still want all of this together and he looks like he's an independent force, he kind of stands alone out there.

Howard Fischer: I think it definitely help, a, he doesn't have the same money, you've got three of the former lawmakers running together as a team. You've got the retired judge saying hey, look at me and here he is trying to do what he can. The best thing he can do for himself is tell republican voters to single shot him. Yeah, you get three votes just vote for me, because otherwise you're not helping.

Ted Simons: He doesn't have to, he's running alone. Three of the other five are returning as a team.

Rachel Leingang: Well interesting, he was running with Rick Gray at the beginning but they really diverged on this issue, so they separated and now he's on his own. The single shotting would be interesting if he did get that out there and I think your general republican voters are not cool with someone buying influence on a commission.

Howard Fischer: That's the key, you know, this is really the - U.S. Senate race notwithstanding, this is the only statewide race and that has the potential for getting more public attention and people understand their utility bill. I remember 20, 30 years ago when APS was doing the double digit inflation, that's when we got the rebellion at the commission. People noticed. Heaven help me.

Mike Sunnucks: In the past, republicans have benefited from the party line voting. Down-ticket. Who are these guys? I'll vote ours. With Donald Trump and the changing dynamics, maybe more democrats are out - or maybe people are like let's give a democrat a chance.

Ted Simons: Or a crusading republican who doesn't play by the rules.

Mike Sunnucks: Yeah.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about Donald Trump and John McCain and the fact that the family of the fallen U.S. -- this is -- McCain notwithstanding, this is one of the weirdest presidential campaign weeks in memory. Let's stick to McCain versus Trump. How do you think that plays out for McCain?

Rachel Leingang: Well McCain is in a tough general election, probably tougher than he's had in the last couple cycles and they're trying to tie him to Trump. They're very different as people and candidates and philosophies and the way they interact. Trump is sort of flying off the handle at any given moment and McCain is a little bit more reserved and the -- the Kirkpatrick people are trying to tie him to Trump and saying he's still supporting this guy despite all of the things he's done.

Ted Simons: We should mention the khan family, the fallen Muslim U.S. soldier at the Democratic Convention. After that disparaging remarks by Donald Trump. And John McCain coming out he can't emphasize how strongly he disagrees and time for Trump to set an example and Trump says what, turns around and says well I never was with McCain. He was never for the vets.

Mike Sunnucks: Trump criticizes McCain's handling of the Phoenix vet hospital. But Trump has vanquished all of these other established republicans. Jeb bush and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. So who does he have left? Paul Ryan, and McCain and McCain is exactly who Trump has been running against in the Republican Party. He's pro-free trade. Been around for 35, 40 years, he's and establishment guy, Washington guy. This is exactly who Trump has been running against.

Howard Fischer: What I cannot get is, look, is Kelly Ward, barring some last-minute perhaps Donald Trump coming here for her, may pick up 30 percent of the anti-Trump vote. He should not be worried about his primary but he's concerned that the Trump people, if he said something, don't vote for Donald Trump, that the Ward people are -- the people are going to go to Ward. They're not come for him anyway. Look, he's a military expert, you've got Donald Trump saying maybe we ought to get out of NATO. Donald Trump on the Khan family and maybe the Russians should have the Crimea. Obvious issues but yet he's saying I'm support the nominee.

Ted Simons: The thing that I think disgruntled some folks, a, you used to have the maverick John McCain who jumped at the chance to put Donald Trump in his place, and, b, if this were a democrat, saying this, John McCain would have been all over them. Don't you think?

Rachel Leingang: Absolutely, it just shows this year, people are afraid of the Trump effect, whatever that might be. Especially for those on the down-ballot. McCain avoided the RNC and distancing himself but not fully coming out and saying hey I don't agree with this guy, I'm not going to support him.

Howard Fischer: As opposed to Jeff Flake, who has gotten national attention for basically saying, Trump's an idiot and I didn't go to the convention. Why? Because I was busy mowing my lawn.

Mike Sunnucks: Republicans don't know what is going to happen. Because of what happened in the primaries. I mean he swept all of those guys away.

Howard Fischer: I'm sorry. Even if Flake were up for election --

Mike Sunnucks: I think flake would have acted a lot more like Paul Ryan is acting. Because they don't know what is going to happen and I agree with you, there's no evidence that the Trump people are going to turn out in droves for Kelly Ward on the 30th.

Ted Simons: But Howie, you say you're sure that flake would have said something, but you would have been sure that McCain would have said something. Wouldn't you, he called him a dummy.

Howard Fischer: I know but there are two John McCains who emerged. We talked about the maverick John McCain and then we talked about the partisan John McCain. Flake has always been a conservative. Look, he bucked the party on Cuba, on trade issues and things like that. So you've got things there where Flake said, here's the line and for all of McCain's reputation as a maverick, who is the true maverick anymore.

Rachel Leingang: It will be interesting to see how this continues to plays out. Trump shows no signs of slowing down or changing the way he is talking. I mean certainly that is what has made him popular. Will he do something that makes McCain say now we've gone too far? And what would that have to be.

Mike Sunnucks: I think it's the poll numbers.

Ted Simons: I was about to say, if the poll numbers continue the way they're trending, everyone and their brother is going to --

Mike Sunnucks: If Trump continues his decline and gets in trouble, then you'll see more political courage from the republican incumbents because it will be safe cover.

Howard Fischer: Isn't that amazing how the courage comes from polling.

Ted Simons: Speaking of polls. We have Sheriff Joe Arpaio, our last topic of the evening, in a poll conducted by OH Predicted Insights and we're not sure about the new polling services. When the election is over, we can go back and compare and contrast. Sound like a big win in the primary against Dan Saban. Any surprise there?

Rachel Leingang: No that doesn't seem that surprising. I think that the republican voters are generally a big fan of his.

Ted Simons: 67% to -- there we go. 67%, 13% for Saban. I think some people weren't even aware that Dan Saban was even there.

Mike Sunnucks: I think saw a few signs up and he's run before. The real race is the 46-41 with Penzone, and the same polling had Hillary Clinton ahead of Trump in Arizona 45-42. There's you know, we don't really know what is going to happen because we don't know the Trump effect here.

Ted Simons: Right, with the margin of error, at the bottom. As you can see, Howie, that is a statistical dead heat.

Howard Fischer: What's going to be interesting to see is the anti-Arpaio votes in the republicans, the same with the anti-Trump votes who might end up with Hillary or sitting at home. This could be the year that someone sends the sheriff home.

Ted Simons: Is it possible that the Trump ship runs so far aground that the Trump supporters come November, they're dispirited and stay home is. That a possibility?

Mike Sunnucks: I think so, a lot of these folks that have been turn out for these rallies are first-time voters and people who aren't engaged in the process like the republican establishment. And if he's down 15 points and discouraged and pulled back on his campaign, we'll see if he does that, you could see lower turnout in a lot of places and I think the Trump voters are key for the Arpaio election.

Rachel Leingang: This continues to be the year of anything is possible. And putting stock in any one poll at this time, especially the ones that appear to be used for P.R., for campaign purposes, they're not necessarily independent. Take all of those with a grain of salt. At the end of the election, we'll see who is correct and the high margin of error, low sample size and a lot not reaching people with cellphones. Look at those things and make sure that the polls might actually be valid.

Howard Fischer: And the other weird thing is we all know that what is happening in the news can affect the poll. The crazy thing with Trump -- sorry, with Arpaio. This is on the heels of news of all of the things that Judge Snow has found against him. The judge refers him for criminal prosecution that might actually raise him in the polls.

Ted Simons: It could raise him or he could say, you know what, I'll tell you what prosecutors, let's figure out a way for me to retire into the sunset and we can drop these.

Mike Sunnucks: That's the end game. I don't think that is in the Sheriff's plans. And again on the flip side, if we have a terrorist attack, the law and order folks will turn out. That could turn things for Trump.

Ted Simons: All bets are off.

Rachel Leingang: And there's a lot more money on the Arpaio campaign. So that will play in very heavily.

Ted Simons: Got to stop you right there. Thank guys, good to have you here.

Ted Simons: Monday on "Arizona Horizon," a one-hour debate, we'll hear from the five republican candidates running for Arizona Corporation Commission. Monday at 5:00 and again at 10:00 on Arizona Horizon. Tuesday, a criminal justice expert talks about the Phoenix serial shooter case. And Wednesday, a new study ranks Arizona as one of the nation's worst states for schools, and Thursday, the University of Phoenix Stadium marks its 10th anniversary. And Friday, it's another edition of the "Journalists' Roundtable." That is it for now. I am Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great weekend.

Rachel Leingang: Arizona Capitol Times; Howard Fischer: Capitol Media Services; Mike Sunnucks: Phoenix Buisness Journal

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