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Reagan eyes election omnibus bill

Sen. Michele Reagan

Sen. Michele Reagan (File photo)

After a handful of strange snags and unprecedented situations, Sen. Michele Reagan is eying a raft of changes to Arizona’s election laws.

Reagan, R-Scottsdale, is working with state, county and municipal election officials on an omnibus bill to address what she sees as a handful of inconsistencies and deficiencies in the statutes. She said she’s still in the fact-finding stage of the proposal, but has already identified several changes she feels need to be made.

Some are aimed at addressing issues that came in the past several years, such as the historic recall election against former Senate President Russell Pearce and the legal battle over the ballot language for Proposition 204.

“The overriding goal is not to knee-jerk on specific things that happened to specific candidates or on specific referendums. But let’s just make sure the statutes are clear,” Reagan said. “We should have some of this stuff nailed down in statute.”

Reagan said she’s been working on the bill for most of the summer. She’s hosted several stakeholder meetings with officials such as Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell and Assistant Secretary of State Jim Drake. She also plans on bringing in Citizens Clean Elections Commission Executive Director Todd Lang and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

The next stakeholder meeting is scheduled for Oct. 17.

Some of the issues Reagan wants to tackle deal with Arizona’s infrequently used recall election process, which had received little attention from policymakers until Pearce was ousted in 2011, making him the first state-level elected official to be recalled in Arizona history.

“We can all agree that things have changed since 1912,” Reagan said.

Reagan said the statutes dealing with recall elections and regular candidate elections are inconsistent. For example, state law requires signature petitions for recall candidates to be notarized, a requirement that doesn’t exist for candidates in regular elections.

She also said she believes the shortened timeframe in which recall candidates have to declare their candidacy needs to be changed.

“We need to be prepared. What if, God forbid, we in Arizona had to go through something like what Wisconsin went through?” Reagan said, referring to recall election against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said the 60-day window between the filing deadline for candidates and the recall election doesn’t give election officials enough time to get everything processed. She also noted that there are different requirements for signing petitions for candidates, initiatives and recalls.

“Whatever they do has to hold for all the cities and counties and state. It’s all put together. Whatever you use for a city referendum is the same thing we use at the state and the county,” Osborne said. “Standardization of that probably needs to be considered.”

Of major concern to Maricopa County election officials is the lack of time the judiciary has to hear complaints against ballot measures. The court system heard several lawsuits this year on the Quality Education and Jobs initiative and the Open Elections/Open Government initiative, with some rulings coming at the last moment before county officials sent their ballots to the printers.

Osborne and Reagan said election officials need more time, though Reagan acknowledged that any changes to the constitutionally mandated deadlines for initiatives and referendums would need voter approval. Voters in 2010 rejected a ballot measure that would have moved up the deadline.

“I know the judiciary is loath to try and make constitutional decisions and have only hours to do it,” Osborne said. “We end up being the poster child for exigent circumstances, and we don’t want to be there.”

To the Secretary of State’s Office, the big issue that needs clarifying involves Prop. 204, known as the Quality Education and Jobs initiative. When the initiative’s backers filed its ballot language with the office, they accidentally submitted two different versions on their print and digital copies.

The office regarded the print version as the official copy and never looked at the digital version until it learned that the digital copy, which the Quality Education and Jobs committee put on its signature petitions, was different. Secretary of State Ken Bennett blocked the initiative from the ballot, a decision that was overturned by the courts.

Drake said the Secretary of State’s Office wants to ensure that such a situation doesn’t happen again.

“Up until this year, if anybody made any changes, they would come back in and re-file,” Drake said. “We’re of the mind that there ought to be only one.”

Reagan said she’s open to the possibility of including some statutory changes sought by Montgomery, who wants to stiffen the laws against coordination between candidates and independent expenditure campaigns. Montgomery’s proposal, which includes criminal penalties, came on the heels of his office’s findings that Attorney General Tom Horne illegally coordinated with an independent expenditure in 2010. Horne denies the allegations.

“It could certainly be added to the list,” Reagan said. “If my working group decides that that is something they want to consider, they’d be open to discussing it. But that’s not what the group was formed for.”

Things will likely get a lot more complicated if Proposition 121 passes in November. The initiative would eliminate partisan primaries and create a “top-two” primary system in which all candidates for an office appear on the same ballot, with the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. It would also create more ballot access for independents, among other changes.

If the Open Elections/Open Government initiative passes, Reagan said the Legislature will have to change about 90 statutes.

Lang said he’s not a major participant but he’ll take part in Reagan’s discussions in an advisory role, and isn’t seeking any changes on behalf of the CCEC. But if Prop. 121 passes, Lang said, changes will be needed to laws on Clean Elections funding for candidates in one-party dominant districts and for independents, who only get 70 percent as much public campaign financing as partisan candidates.

“If the top-two primary passes, it would important to give independents the additional funding in that scenario,” Lang said. “Otherwise I’m just there to help out any way I can.”

Reagan said she views her bill as kind of a corollary to Sen. Jerry Lewis’ proposed legislation on lobbying reforms, an issue she’s been working on as well. She said she and Lewis, R-Mesa, may be able to work together on their bills, especially since she expects there to be some overlap between the two proposals.

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