Zoom gives Arizonans a voice at Capitol, but getting to speak isn’t that simple

Protesters used to frequently march outside the Arizona state Capitol. During the pandemic, most committees offer the public the option to testify virtually, but the system isn’t without its challenges. (File photo by Gabrielle Abbott/Cronkite News)

Anyone requesting to speak at the Arizona Senate must activate an account in-person at one of these terminals at the state Capitol. (Photo by Ben Giles/KJZZ)

PHOENIX – In theory, it’s never been easier for Arizonans to have their say at the Legislature. Most committees in the state Senate and House of Representatives offer the option to testify virtually. It’s an effort to minimize large indoor gatherings, which are discouraged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In practice, however, a procedural hurdle is stopping many Arizonans from having any say at all. Testifying before legislative committees requires an account with the state’s Request to Speak system – RTS for short.

“If you have not already established an account through that system, the only way to establish an account is to actually physically go down to the state Capitol and set up an account through one of their kiosks,” said David Lujan, a former lawmaker and interim president of Children’s Action Alliance.

Anyone can start the process of creating an RTS account online. But before you can actually “request to speak” about a bill in a committee hearing, or even register your support or opposition to a bill in the RTS system, you’ll be blocked by a prompt to activate your account.

That step, as Lujan said, requires Arizonans to physically be in the Capitol, where computer terminals in the lobbies of the House and Senate are the only place where an account can be activated.

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said the requirement is necessary.

“It’s there for a reason: So that our committee members, and the rest of our members, can actually see what our constituents have to say, whether they like things or don’t like things,” Fann told an Arizona Capitol Times panel in February.

Fann warned that allowing remote access to RTS – meaning remote activation of accounts – would allow thousands of people from all over the country, perhaps even the world, to flood the system.

Although preventing such a flood is a laudable goal, critics warn the system doesn’t provide equitable access to all Arizonans.

“People who don’t live in the area, people whose work schedules would preclude going to the Capitol when it’s open – how are those people then supposed to be able to express themselves?” asked Judith Simons, a retired teacher and volunteer with Civic Engagement Beyond Voting.

The organization boasts that it has helped register more than 6,000 people for the RTS system since 2017. All it needs is your first name, last name and email address.

“I go into the Capitol once or twice a week,” Simons said. “It has been this year a different frequency, depending on how many people are signing up. But I set up the account with a generic password, and then they will get a confirmation email that gives directions on how to change their password and how to actually use the Request to Speak system.”

Simons said her services are needed more and more frequently, though not necessarily because of the pandemic.

“I think people are becoming more aware that it’s available, and feeling like they want to take advantage of it,” she said.

Most people Simons helps register don’t actually want to testify in front of a committee, even via Zoom. She says most simply use another aspect of RTS, which allows individuals to register their position on a specific bill: for, against or neutral. Lawmakers can see those lists of names before deciding how to cast their vote on a bill.

Sometimes, overwhelming support or opposition for a bill is cited in committee debates. During a Feb. 8 hearing of the Senate Government Committee, Democrats noted that hundreds of Arizonans signed in as opposed to Senate Bill 1531, which would add new requirements for circulators gathering signatures as part of the citizen initiative process.

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At the time, only two people had signed in to support the measure.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, dismissed the numbers as fraudulent.

“This morning, you know, I got in bright and early and I saw two ladies sitting there on the RTS system in the lobby, just sitting there for hours and hours and hours plugging in signatures or plugging in names and all this stuff,” Borrelli said. “So unfortunately the RTS system has been manipulated to really not be fair, honest, accuracy.”

Simons said Borrelli misunderstood the role she plays as a volunteer.

“We don’t actually go in and ‘vote’ on the bills. And I think he is confused if he thinks that’s what he was seeing,” she said.

Lujan has encouraged leaders in both chambers to reconsider the in-person activation policy during the pandemic. But he also hopes it’s a policy that, if changed, will benefit Arizonans in the long term.

“Whether we’re in a pandemic or not, if you live in Prescott or Yuma or Flagstaff, you should have the same ability to participate in the legislative process as somebody in Maricopa County,” he said.