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Ballot access getting easier for candidates, harder for initiatives

2012 canvass

Elections officials certify the 2012 election results on Dec. 3. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Candidates for office in Arizona have never had an easier time getting on the ballot, but lawmakers are looking to raise the bar for citizen initiatives, referendums and recalls.

Thanks to a pilot program that began in 2011 and runs through the 2014 election cycle, candidates can now get up to half of their signatures online through the E-Qual system run by the Secretary of State’s Office. A proposal to allow candidates to get all of their signatures online stalled after being introduced in the Legislature this session.

Meanwhile, several bills sponsored by Sen. Michele Reagan, R- Scottsdale, who is pushing for an overhaul of numerous election laws, would establish stricter standards on initiatives and recall drives.

One such bill, SB1264, would impose a “strict compliance” requirement on citizen petitions that have historically been subject to the less- stringent judicial standard of “substantial compliance,” meaning there is room for some error. Another proposal, SCR1006, would ask voters to approve moving the deadline two months earlier for citizen initiatives to file their signatures. And another, SCR1019, would ask voters to impose a new requirement that initiatives collect signatures from at least five counties and get at least 25 percent of their signatures outside the population centers of Maricopa and Pima counties.

Some advocates of citizen initiatives ask why candidates should be able to collect signatures online while initiatives, which need hundreds of thousands of signatures to get on the ballot, must continue to rely solely on paid circulators who stand in parking lots outside grocery stores and libraries across the state.

“I don’t understand why, because it’s the same voter signing. It’s the same process,” said Andrew Chavez, owner of the signature gathering company Petition Partners.

Even without this year’s legislation, initiatives face a steeper climb than candidates in getting signatures. Unlike candidate petitions, initiative petitions must be notarized. The initiative campaigns must acknowledge when out-of-state circulators are paid to collect signatures. A 2011 law eliminated the “95-105 rule” that gave the benefit of the doubt to initiative petitions that fell within

5 percent of the required signature total. And initiative signatures generally face more scrutiny than candidate petitions.

Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said many GOP lawmakers are simply hostile to the initiative process because they don’t like many of the laws it creates. Republicans have controlled the Legislature for decades, and outside groups often use initiatives to implement liberal policies that are unlikely to pass muster at the Capitol.

“It’s truly a double standard here at the Legislature. We make it more difficult for the people of Arizona and much easier for politicians,” Gallardo said.

One of the proposed changes, which would create a judicial standard of strict compliance for initiatives, was largely aimed at preventing a repeat of the fight over Proposition 204 in 2012. The proposed measure, which would have made permanent an expiring 1-cent sales increase, mistakenly filed two versions of the initiative with the Secretary of State’s Office. But the initiative’s organizers won a court challenge when a judge ruled that they had substantially complied with the law.

Chavez questioned whether strict compliance would be a significant burden to future initiatives.

“The impact I don’t think would’ve been that large over the last six years, with the exception of (Prop.) 204 and the paper versus digital filing,” he said.

Ultimately, Chavez said, it will depend on how strict county election officials are. If they use the strict compliance requirement to toss signatures of voters who sign their names as Drew instead of Andrew, for example, that would be problematic.

Gallardo, however, predicted that the change will keep future initiatives off the ballot.

“You make it easier … for attorneys to challenge initiatives,” he said.

Reagan, who is exploring a run for secretary of state in 2014, said the purpose of her election bills is to make election officials’ jobs easier and resolve frequent problems that complicate the process.

After the 2012 election, Reagan held a series of meetings with state and county-level election officials to craft legislation that would fix various problems they’d faced in recent years. Some of those problems focused on the short time frame they have to verify the hundreds of thousands of signature they must sort through on initiative petitions, and the court challenges that in some cases drag on until moments before the printing deadline for ballots.

Reagan said her intention wasn’t to make the process more difficult for initiatives and recalls. Her election bills are a “wish list” from the Secretary of State’s Office, county election officials and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, she said.

The problem with the current substantial compliance requirement, Reagan said, is that it leads so many initiatives straight to the courtroom. And it allows initiatives to sidestep legal requirements.

For example, she said, initiative petitions must be notarized, but if a notarization is bad, the secretary of state doesn’t have the authority to reject it.

“Basically, strict compliance is, no, that’s the law. And if you don’t do it, those signatures don’t count,” Reagan said. “There’s a thought being kind of if we have these election laws, why do we have them if they can be skirted by going to court?”

Maricopa County elections director Karen Osborne, who was part of Reagan’s working group on the election bills, said an earlier deadline for initiatives to submit their signatures is needed to give officials enough time to verify signatures and deal with legal challenges.

“We had wanted strongly to move that date for filing back to May instead of July so that we wouldn’t be running from the courthouse to the printer,” Osborne said.

But Osborne said she’d be OK with reducing the number of signatures needed for initiatives to get on the ballot, as long as the deadline was moved back as well. Gallardo also said the number of signatures should be reduced.

Reagan said she didn’t include a strict compliance requirement for candidates in her bills because the statutes governing candidate ballot access are updated regularly.

But she said she would be fine with imposing the same requirement on candidates. Reagan also said she’s open to eliminating the notarization requirement for initiatives, which she said she left out of her bill at the request of colleagues who opposed the change.

And Reagan said she would also be open to allowing initiatives, referendums and recalls to get signatures online, just like candidates can now.

“It can be done for candidates and it seems to be something people like and it seemed to work this last time. So I have no problem with that being expanded,” Reagan said.  “Absolutely there should be more parity. Consistency in all the different types of elections is one of the goals of what our working group was trying to accomplish.”

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, who sponsored a bill this session to allow statewide and legislative candidates to collect all of their signatures online, also said he wouldn’t have a problem with allowing initiatives to do the same thing.

“My personal view is that we should be moving into a direction of easier technology and I think you’ll see, as we know with E-Qual, there’s a real-time validation that this is really a registered voter in my district that’s electronically signing this petition,” Worsley said.

Reagan’s election bills passed the Senate and are awaiting hearings in the House, where they have already cleared the House Judiciary Committee. She said House colleagues are welcome to make any changes they want, including  notarization requirements or online signature gathering.

Reagan said the new requirements might actually benefit initiatives.

Chavez, who has worked on many of the major initiative drives of the past several election cycles, agreed, saying court battles take substantial resources and make it harder to raise money because potential contributors don’t know if an ongoing legal challenge will keep an initiative off the ballot.

“No one wants to give to something that’s a big question mark,” Chavez said.

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