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Elections officials defend requirements for minor parties

Secretary of State Ken Bennett (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Secretary of State Ken Bennett (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Secretary of State Ken Bennett is asking a federal judge to rebuff efforts by the Green Party to get its candidates on the Arizona ballot this year.

Assistant Attorney General Michele Forney, representing Bennett, said there is nothing unconstitutional about a requirement in Arizona law that parties seeking ballot status must file sufficient petitions by Feb. 27.

Forney did not dispute the contention by the Robert Barnes, attorney for the Green Party, that the deadline for parties to file necessary papers 180 days before the August primary is among the earliest in the nation. But she told U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake there’s a good reason for that, detailing the many things state and county officials have to do to prepare for the election.

Anyway, Forney argued, it’s not like the deadline is impossible to meet. She said the Americans Elect Party, which had to go through the same procedure the Green Party is facing now, managed to qualify for the 2012 ballot in plenty of time.

Hanging in the balance is whether Arizonans will have options to choose among candidates representing four parties – Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Americans Elect – or five.

Arizona law requires a political party to have membership totaling at least 5 percent of the votes cast for governor or president in the most recent statewide election. Based on the 2012 presidential race, the Green Party needed to have 21,499 people registered.

The last voter count in 2013 showed the party with just 5,601 registrants. So Bennett declared them ineligible for ballot status.

That still left the party with a possible opening: Submit 23,041 valid signatures on petitions to requalify for the ballot by Feb. 27.

That did not happen, with party Chairman Angel Torres saying it was impossible to meet both an early deadline and an ever-increasing number of signatures. So the party sued, calling the deadline “unduly burdensome and invidiously discriminatory” in a way to harm minor parties.

Forney said the deadline is justified.

“There are many tasks that must be completed before the primary elections,” she wrote in her court pleadings. “Many of those depend to some extent on the status of the various political parties.”

For example, Forney said Bennett has to determine by March 1 of election years how many signatures candidates need on nominating petitions. That is linked to the number of registered voters for each party.

Candidates then can file those petitions starting four months before the primary, with a deadline of a month later.

“The secretary (of state) and county election officials need to know whether to accept the nominating papers from someone who seeks to be a candidate for the Arizona Green Party for a particular office,” Forney said, and even whether there will be a Green Party primary.

And early voting for the primary starts this year on July 31.

Forney also pointed out that none of this should be news to Green Party officials.

She said the party had to go through the same procedure four years ago when its registration fell below the required numbers. And she said the party managed to produce 24,020 verified signatures that year – nearly 1,000 more than needed this time.

If nothing else, Forney urged Wake to toss the case based on timing.

She said the party filed suit just two days before this year’s deadline and then did nothing to have the case expedited to ensure final resolution by the May 28 candidate filing deadline.

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