Activists are attempting to repeal a trio of laws approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor this year. But pulling off a referendum, known colloquially as a “citizens’ veto,” isn’t easy.
Even if activists are able to gather the necessary 75,321 valid signatures from registered Arizona voters in the allotted 90 days, and even if the referenda and signatures survive inevitable legal challenges, lawmakers always have a trump card: They can simply repeal and replace the laws.
Save Our Schools, a political committee that formed after a group of teachers and public education advocates met at the Capitol while protesting a bill to expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, essentially school vouchers, is attempting to repeal that measure.
Voters of Arizona, a political committee headed by former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, is targeting two initiative laws – one that bans paying initiative petition circulators on a per-signature basis, upending the economic model upon which signature gathering firms are based; and another that requires initiatives to adhere to “strict compliance” with the law, meaning initiatives could be voided for strictly technical issues.
Voters of Arizona is using paid petition circulators, while the Save Our Schools is all volunteer based. And that distinction, some observers say, may mean the difference between being able to pull off a referendum or falling flat.
No statewide referendum in modern times has made it to the ballot without paying for at least some of its signatures.
That’s at least in part because referendum campaigns begin after the legislative session ends, just as temperatures start to creep into the triple digits.
Drew Chavez, owner of Petition Partners, the state’s largest petition circulating firm and the firm contracted to work for Voters of Arizona, said lawmakers know that it’s harder to gather signatures in the middle of summer, and he accused the Legislature of dragging out the 2017 session another week or two just to ensure the temperatures were unbearable for those attempting to refer the laws to the ballot.
Lawmakers adjourned the 2017 legislative session on May 10, meaning referendum campaigns have until August 8 to gather signatures.
Still, referenda organizers say they’re on track to accomplish the herculean task of gathering more than 75,000 valid signatures during the hot summer months.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for the Save Our Schools campaign, said despite the group’s thin financial backing, the petitions are flying off the shelves, and they’re on track to meet their goals.
“It seems like we can’t print the petitions as fast as people are wanting more,” she said.
And Chavez said Voters of Arizona, which is targeting two initiative laws, is already ahead of schedule.
“We set extremely aggressive goals, and we have surpassed them by 15 percent every day. And I think that’s a combination of we’re very good at what we do, and people are really looking for us. For the first time ever, people are seeking out our project,” he said.
But even if the campaigns clear the first hurdle of gathering enough signatures, they still have several other hurdles to clear before voters get a chance to vote on the laws.
The referenda will almost certainly be challenged in court. Opponents frequently challenge the validity of signatures on the petitions, and often get a judge to invalidate up to 30 percent of the signatures for various reasons. That means a referendum campaign actually needs to collect upwards of 100,000 signatures to provide a cushion.
Then a referendum itself is subject to “strict compliance” – a legal term that requires the campaigns follow the letter of the law, not just the spirit of the law. In practical terms, that means referendum can be thrown out for something as innocuous as using the wrong margin size or font size.
Finally, if the referenda are ultimately successful in qualifying for the ballot, lawmakers have one last move at their disposal to kill the effort.
Republican Sen. Debbie Lesko of Peoria, who sponsored the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts bill, noted that if the campaign against her legislation actually gets enough valid signatures it needs to make the ballot, the Legislature can just repeal and replace the law.
It wouldn’t be the first time lawmakers have employed the strategy. In 2014, after voters had gathered enough signatures to halt the elections omnibus bill lawmakers had approved the previous year, the Legislature simply repealed the law.
And in 2015, after the threat of a referendum had passed, lawmakers re-approved many of the controversial provisions in the law.
Katie Campbell contributed to this reportF