Arizona lawmakers may add geographic requirements for citizens who want to pass laws via the ballot, a hurdle critics warned may be insurmountable for ordinary citizens.
Any individual or organization that wants to change state law or amend the Arizona Constitution must gather a certain number of signatures to qualify their proposal for the ballot. Legislation approved by House and Senate committees this week would require specific portions of those signatures be collected from all the state’s 30 legislative districts.
Republican lawmakers and business leaders backing the measures say it’s necessary to ensure that all Arizonans are considered when laws are proposed to Arizona voters.
If approved by the House and Senate, the constitutional proposal would be sent to the Secretary of State’s Office to be placed on the 2020 ballot.
Sen. Sine Kerr, the sponsor of SCR 1023, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 21 that rural voters are left out of the process by organizations that only gather signatures in large Arizona cities like Phoenix and Tucson.
“The current process disproportionately disenfranchises rural voters,” said Kerr, R-Buckeye.
It takes 237,645 valid signatures to get a proposed law on the ballot – that’s 10 percent of the number of Arizonans who cast a vote in the governor’s race in the most recent election, a group of voters the Arizona Constitution refers to as “qualified electors.” For constitutional amendments, it takes more than 365,000 valid signatures, a threshold of 15 percent of those gubernatorial voters in 2018.
Kerr’s proposal, and an identical resolution sponsored by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, stipulate that among those hundreds of thousands of signatures, a portion must come from every legislative district in the state.
In each district, a threshold would need to be met matching the statewide requirement. For example, a proposed state law would need signatures from 10 percent of “qualified electors” in Legislative District 1 to qualify, as well as needing 10 percent from each of the other 29 districts.
Constitutional amendments would require each district be represented by signatures from at least 15 percent of those voters.
Free Enterprise Club President Scot Musi said requiring campaigns to fan out across all corners of the state will discourage wealthy interest groups from simply collecting signatures in the state’s urban centers, and ensure all Arizonans have a say of what gets printed on ballots.
For example, Arizona Republicans and business leaders were highly critical of California billionaire Tom Steyer’s clean energy campaign, which spent more than $20 million in Arizona the past election cycle.
“There’s a growing trend here in Arizona and across the country of out-of-state groups parachuting into the state and pushing ideas on the ballot,” Musi said.
Kerr and Kavanagh’s proposal would actually have the opposite effect, warned Geoff Esposito, a lobbyist for Living United for Change Arizona, a group that backed a 2016-voter-approved increase to Arizona’s minimum wage. Collecting signatures throughout the state will cost more, leaving only those with deep pockets capable of proposing ballot measures, he said.
And while Musi told senators that other states have adopted similar restrictions on the ballot process, none are as strict as the amendment Arizona lawmakers are proposing, Esposito said.
Musi cited Colorado, where voters adopted a more restrictive legislate-by-ballot process in 2016. But the overall signature-gathering threshold in Colorado was and remains much lower than in Arizona. Citizens need to collect only 5 percent of the number of voters who last cast ballots for secretary of state, a race with traditionally lower participation than gubernatorial elections, according to the Denver Post.
Thirty-nine measures were on the ballot in Colorado in 2016, compared to four in Arizona. Only two of the Arizona measures were proposed by citizens.
Colorado’s new rules now require signatures to be collected from all of the state’s 35 districts. But the threshold per district is only 2 percent.
“This would actually be the most restrictive version of this measure of any state in the nation,” Esposito said.
Arizona ballot measures are already on the decline, a trend Democrats attribute to repeated, GOP-backed changes to the initiative process.
In the last decade, enough signatures were gathered for an average of one to two measures to qualify for the ballot each election. In 2014, no citizen-backed measures made the ballot for the first time since 1978. During that same time period, many more measures were sent to the ballot by Arizona lawmakers.
In the decade prior, from the 2000 to 2008 election cycles, an average of five to six measures qualified for the ballot every two years, including 10 citizen-driven proposal in 2006 alone.
“It’s already extremely difficult to put a measure on the ballot, and this, if passed by voters, would make it more difficult,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Others said a district-based signature requirement could prevent measures from getting to a vote if voters in a single district oppose the idea. Not meeting the 10-percent or 15-percent signature threshold in just one district would doom an initiative from qualifying for the ballot.
“An idea born in Tombstone should not be vetoed by Tempe or Tucson,” Esposito said.
Sen. Lupe Contreras of Avondale, one of three Democrats who opposed the measure in the Senate committee, said it doesn’t matter if all the signatures are collected in only a few Arizona cities or towns – every idea is still subject to statewide, up or down vote.
“Regardless of where the signatures come from, it goes to the voters,” Contreras said.
SCR 1023 and Kavanagh’s HCR 2005 must still be approved by a full Senate and House vote. If so, the secretary of state would be required to include the proposed Constitutional amendment on the November 2020 ballot.