Toward the end of May, Leslie Pico walked 12 to 15 miles a day to get on the August primary ballot.
Pico, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Arizona secretary of state, spent most of April and May collecting at least 5,801 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
She collected 6,916 signatures, but they may not be enough.
Pico’s nominating petitions were challenged June 13. Like several other first-time political candidates, she is now tied up in a court battle for electoral integrity.
With a surge of new candidates seeking state and legislative offices this fall, many of them political newcomers who decided to jump into races close to the filing deadline, the Secretary of State’s Office has seen a jump in the number of candidate challenges this year.
The state’s chief elections office had 30 petition challenges in state and federal races this year. That’s up from 12 in 2016 and 22 in 2014. The number of candidate challenges this year exceeds the number of challenges in at least the past six election cycles, according to data from the Secretary of State’s Office.
Pico, 31, didn’t anticipate the petition challenge.
“I did know it was a possibility, but I guess this is where my idealism overpowered how pragmatic I should have been about the situation,” she said.
The consultant with expertise in programming and blockchain is challenging Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Former House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, Hobbs’ former seatmate, challenged Pico’s petitions, some of which are missing required information, were signed by Republicans or signed by people who are not registered to vote in the state, a complaint filed in Maricopa County Superior Court alleges.
Campbell also challenged the petitions of Mark Robert Gordon — another relatively unknown Democrat in the secretary of state’s race. Gordon has since dropped out of the race and thrown his support behind Hobbs.
Secretary of State Michele Reagan is up for re-election this year. She is being challenged by wealthy businessman Steve Gaynor in the Republican primary.
Campbell and Hobbs declined to comment on the ballot challenge against Pico. But speaking more generally, Campbell said candidates should always verify and validate their signatures before they turn them into the Secretary of State’s Office.
“As I always say, if you’ve got valid signatures, then you’ve nothing to worry about,” he said. “If you don’t, then you probably shouldn’t be on the ballot.”
Pico agrees with state requirements that candidates must get a certain number of valid signatures from registered voters to get on the ballot, but she said that for a lot of candidates, challenges can turn into a money issue.
Pico hired a lawyer to take her case and defend her in court on June 22, a cost of $5,000. Some close family friends forked over the cash to help her cause, she said.
“The signature requirement was developed around the turn of the century … to prevent the parties from having political control of who is on the ballot,” she said. “But now it has become a tool for them to do exactly this.”
But Campbell said that it can be hard for candidates to gather enough valid signatures in a short time span. This election cycle has seen a lot more candidates get into the race at the last minute, he said.
“When you have more candidates jumping in late and what seems to be more people out there that are gathering signatures that probably either don’t know what they’re doing or doing it in an fraudulent manner, I think that’s a perfect recipe for having this number of challenges,” Campbell said.
Money has been an issue for other candidates as well. Legislative District 16 candidate Bonnie Hickman had her petitions challenged by Adam Stevens — a Republican who had previously run in the district. Instead of hiring a lawyer, Hickman defended herself in court.
Hickman, a Republican, was inspired to run by the “Red for Ed” movement. Her challenger was a member of the Purple for Parents Facebook group — created by people opposed to the “Red for Ed” teachers’ strike.
In court, Hickman wore a red skirt suit. But she seemed unsure of herself as she moved around the courtroom and questioned witnesses. She often looked to the judge for guidance.
Hickman collected her 679 signatures in about five days in May.
“Two months ago, I wasn’t even involved in politics,” she said. “Two months ago, I probably couldn’t even tell you what legislative district I lived in. This has definitely been a learning curve.”
After a hearing this week, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Connie Contes ruled Hickman was seven valid signatures short of qualifying for the August primary ballot.
Kellie Engen, a Republican candidate for LD22 House, and Gabriel Escontrias, a Democratic candidate for LD30 Senate, both voluntarily withdrew from their races after having their petitions challenged. Both were political newcomers.
Engen, a nurse, said she’s unlikely to ever seek elected office again.
“I guess in some ways I was too naive,” she said. “I just thought I’d file my petitions, run a campaign and win or lose and be done. I didn’t think I’d have to go through all these hoops and then in the end, not be on the ballot.”
Escontrias characterized this more as a learning experience.
He naively thought it was a good thing when Republicans signed his nominating petitions. He thought his message was resonating with voters of all kinds. But candidates can only collect signatures from members of their own party and independents — people who could vote for that same candidate in the primary.
“I think there’s a lot of changes I would make next time just to be able to go above and beyond in signatures to make sure that my campaign is a little more challenge-proof,” he said.
Reporter Paulina Pineda contributed to this report.