Latest Republican plan throws hurdles in initiatives’ path to the ballot

Latest Republican plan throws hurdles in initiatives’ path to the ballot

Boxes of initiative petitions for the Open Government/Open Elections ballot initiative are turned into the Secretary of State's office July 5. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)
Boxes of initiative petitions for the Open Government/Open Elections ballot initiative were turned into the Secretary of State’s office in 2012. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Republican lawmakers are teeing up yet another measure designed to throw hurdles in the path of Arizonans who want to craft their own laws.

The latest plan, set for debate on Wednesday in the House Appropriations Committee, would require initiative backers to gather signatures in each of the state’s 30 legislative districts.

More to the point, the number from each area would have to be in proportion to the number of votes cast there for governor at the last election. And if residents from any one of those areas balked, the measure would never get to the ballot.

Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, the driving force behind HCR2029, said that’s precisely the purpose of the measure. He said it’s too easy right now for people with money to put an issue up for a vote.

“If George Soros writes a check for $2.5 million, it’s on the ballot,” he said Monday, referring to the billionaire who has supported liberal ballot measures in some states like requiring background checks when guns are bought and sold. “That’s a problem to me.”

But what Shooter touts as an advantage, Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, sees as a hit to the democratic process of majority rule.

“You could put yourself in a situation where the vast majority of Arizonans want something to happen but one district can hold everything up,” he said.

What the measure would do is make the process of gathering signatures more difficult and more expensive for groups that need to hire paid circulators.

Under the current constitutional requirements, it takes the signatures of 10 percent of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election to put a change in the law before voters. Based on the 2014 vote total of 1,506,416, that threshold stands at 150,642.

Shooter’s point is that all those signatures could be gathered in just one county, most likely Maricopa County, where 60 percent of the state’s more than 3.6 million registered voters are located.

Under his plan, if 50,000 of the people who voted for governor came from his legislative district, then 5,000 of the 150,642 signatures would need to come from that district. And the same scenario would play out 29 more times across the state.

“It gives the people more say-so,” Shooter said, adding it ensures that anything that gets on the ballot has a certain buy-in statewide.

For example, he said, if Maricopa County decides to put a referral to voters to steal everybody else’s share of the state’s water, rural counties would have something to say about it.

“They can have an organized resistance in their county,” he said.

The same change would apply to constitutional amendments, which require the signatures of 15 percent of those who voted in the gubernatorial race to get on the ballot. And it also would affect the referendum process, where people opposed to an act of the Legislature can put it on “hold” until the next general election by gathering the signatures of five percent of voters.

Clark questioned whether the measure would survive a legal challenge.

In 2014, the secretary of state’s office agreed to stop enforcing a similar requirement, which, until then, required candidates for statewide office to get signatures on nominating petitions from voters in at least three counties.

Assistant Attorney General Michele Forney admitted in legal papers filed in federal court that the statute runs afoul of constitutional requirements to treat all people equally. So, rather than contesting the lawsuit, Forney said the state will simply ignore the requirement for all future elections.

But Kory Langhofer, the attorney for the Public Integrity Alliance which brought that lawsuit, said Monday that Shooter’s measure might not befall the same fate.

Langhofer said the issue in his case was that counties are not equal in population, making the signatures from one county potentially worth more than other counties. In the case of HCR2029, he said, all the legislative districts have roughly the same population.

Shooter conceded that same requirement for statewide buy-in would not apply to the legislative process itself. Lawmakers would remain free to enact new statutes with a majority of votes, even without the support of lawmakers from each district.

But Shooter said there are “many, many more checks and balances” on the legislative process.

The proposal is the latest in a series of Republican-crafted measures that are working their way through the legislative process in the wake of voters approving an initiative to hike the state minimum wage. Other changes include bans on paid circulators, new rules that initiative circulators would need to follow and giving state lawmakers more power to overrule what voters have enacted.

Julie Erfle of AZ Schools Now, which is fighting these measures, said Shooter’s legislation is no better.

“The people who are upset at the fact that some folks have been successful in getting initiatives on the ballot are looking for any way possible to do whatever they can, right up to the line of legal, to make the initiative process more difficult,” she said.

Shooter conceded that, if initiative organizers do manage to get the signatures and put an issue on the ballot, his proposal still would allow measures to be enacted even if voters in a majority of the counties disagree.

That’s precisely what happened in 2010 with Proposition 203 which legalized marijuana for medical use. It failed in 13 of the state’s 15 counties but got enacted anyway based on strong support from Pima and Coconino counties.