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Open Government Committee sues to put top-two initiative on ballot

Paul Johnson, former Phoenix mayor and chairman of the Open Government Committee, speaks with the media in front the 365,486 signature petitions the committee handed over to the Arizona Secretary of State in early July in order to qualify the Open Elections/Open Government ballot initiative for the 2012 election. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Supporters of a proposed initiative to create a “top-two” primary elections system allege that Maricopa County election officials improperly invalidated hundreds of petition signatures and are going to court in a bid to get the Open Elections/Open Government Act on the November ballot.

The Open Government Committee said it found 736 mistakenly invalidated signatures that the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office should restore. The additional signatures would give the Open Elections/Open Government Act enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

“After our review of the thousands of signatures elections officials deemed invalid, we have identified hundreds of errors,” committee Chairman Paul Johnson said in a press statement.

Maricopa County validated just 67 percent of the signatures it checked for the initiative, compared to an average of more than 78 percent for Arizona’s other 14 counties, the committee said. The county invalidated a total of 4,314 signatures.

The initiative needed 259,213 valid signatures qualify for the ballot. Based on the counties’ check of a 5 percent sample, the Secretary of State’s Office determined it had only 249,068 valid signatures.

The campaign submitted 358,629 signatures that were eligible for verification. The Secretary of State’s Office forwarded 17,932 – a 5 percent sample – to the counties for verification. The initiative needed 4,970 or fewer signatures from the sample to be invalidated to qualify for the ballot, but the counties nixed 5,291. If the 736 disputed signatures in the sample were restored, that would be more than enough to put the measure on the ballot.

According to the committee, the invalidated signatures included a 90-year-old woman whose signature was tossed out because the number 1 in her address looked like a 7, dozens of younger voters who didn’t list their apartment numbers with their addresses, and at least 16 people whose signatures were deemed to not match the signatures on file, but whom Johnson said verified to him personally that they signed the petition.

The committee also said it found voter registration records for 345 people whose signatures were tossed after the county determined that they weren’t registered to vote, 89 people improperly deemed to have invalid addresses, and 104 people whose signatures were scrapped because they accidentally listed the date as being in 2011 shortly after the New Year.

Joe Yuhas, a consultant for the campaign, said the shortened timeframe election officials had to validate the signatures led to the errors. Johnson said election officials faced a time crunch in which they had to check three citizen initiatives in just 20 days, and that the Open Elections/Open Government Act was checked last.

“We recognize that elections officials have a tight time frame and are under pressure to complete their review in a timely fashion,” Yuhas said in a press release. “There is clearly room for human error. We have found specific errors that are not only disenfranchising individual voters, but of course would prevent all Arizona voters from casting a ballot on the initiative.”

Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne, however, said she’s confident in the county’s work. She said members of the Open Government Committee verified the names of people it believes were wrongly invalidated, but never came to her department to verify the signatures.

“I’m not saying we haven’t made a mistake in our lives, but I believe in our work,” Osborne said.

Johnson said the lawsuit also challenges the constitutionality of a 2011 omnibus elections bill that made it more difficult for citizen initiatives to get on the ballot. HB2304 eliminated a law that required a full check of all signatures if the total number of valid signatures fell within 5 percent of the total needed to qualify for the ballot.

“It was designed, it was rigged against the citizen initiative process. And we think the courts are going to find that that is not in holding with what the founders of this state wanted when they created the initiative process. They wanted them all counted,” Johnson told the Arizona Capitol Times.

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