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Senate panel approves bill to make petition drives more efficient

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

An Arizona Senate panel cleared legislation that would require political organizations to better organize signatures they collect in petition drives and reward organizations that conduct background checks of their own paid circulators.

HB 2305, sponsored by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, would require groups to organize the pages of signatures they collect by the county of residence of the signatories. The added level of organization will help organizations track the number of signatures they’ve collected and make it easier for the Secretary of State’s office to count signatures once they’ve been filed, said Jim Drake, assistant secretary of state.

The measure already cleared the House, and senators on the Elections Committee approved the bill Tuesday, 5-2.

“In the 2012, the enormity of these petitions was staggering,” Drake said. Elections officials had to organize and count upwards of three pallets full of signatures, and in some cases, the estimates for signatures an organization said they submitted were way off – by nearly 4,000 signatures in one case, Drake said.

“The people who are bringing these sheets to us don’t even understand what they have,” he said. “You have to have a better handle on what you turn in if you’re going to be successful.”

Opponents of the bill said the organization requirements are burdensome for operations that have just 90 days to collect, in some instances, hundreds of thousands of signatures in order to get measures before voters.

“Sometimes it’s messy and not as well organized as you’d like them to be at the last minute,” said lobbyist Sydney Hay. “I’d hate to see those thrown out.”

And strict compliance – language in the bill specifies that the Secretary of State “may return as unfiled signature sheets that are not so organized and grouped” – leaves open the possibility for signatures to be erroneously invalidated, said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix.

Gallardo said he was sure Secretary of State Ken Bennett had the best intentions in backing the bill, but “we have no idea what will happen in future years when we have a different administration up there.”

Bennett said the “may” in the bill gives his office discretion to use common sense and leniency when petitioners don’t follow the letter of the law to a T.

And adding optional background checks of paid circulators would give  political organizations  incentives to ensure their circulators are in good legal standing. If they do that, Bennett said, it will make it more difficult for challengers to question the validity of signatures collected in court.

The Elections Committee also approved a measure to place a statement clarifying the ramifications of Proposition 105 measures on election materials such as campaign literature and ballot initiative paperwork

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, said the measure would help fully inform the voters of the implications of their votes. Once approved, Proposition 105 measures can only be changed by a majority vote of the Arizona Legislature.

HB 2007 passed the committee 4-3, with three Senate Democrats voting against the measure over concerns that the language of the disclosure was misleading.  The disclosure would state that “this measure can never be changed in the future,” but later states that a three-fourths majority of the Legislature can amend the measure at a later time.

Other petitioners argued that adding the disclosure statement would be an unnecessary expense when printing campaign materials.

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