While passing a bill that places new restrictions on efforts to bypass lawmakers and legislate via the ballot, House Republicans also granted the attorney general the authority to unilaterally change wording that describes those ballot measures to voters.
Democrats objected that an amendment to SB 1451 enshrines broad authority within the Attorney General’s Office to make eleventh-hour changes to language used to explain to voters what laws proposed through the citizen initiative process would do.
Republicans like Rep. Warren Petersen of Gilbert said that the measure simply clarifies what it means for the attorney general to “approve” ballot language that’s written by election officials at the Secretary of State’s Office – in a way that supports a controversial action taken by one of Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s top aides in 2018.
Less than two months before the general election, the civil division within the Attorney General’s Office was tasked with approving language to describe Proposition 127, a renewable energy initiative. The civil division took the language provided by former Elections Director Eric Spencer and added wording that, if the initiative was approved by voters, it would be implemented “irrespective of cost to consumers.”
The additional words were similar to arguments made by Arizona Public Service to convince voters to reject Prop. 127. It didn’t help that, just days after the Attorney General’s Office made the change, TV ads financed by APS cited the language to campaign against Prop. 127.
At the time, Spencer called the addition “eyebrow raising.” House Democrats said they feared that similar controversial changes could be made by attorneys general in the future to influence elections. Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, said that the ability to alter what voters see on the ballot could be abused, and turns the attorney general into a “kingmaker” that can decide the fate of ballot measures and referenda.
Put another way, the attorney general could tweak language on the ballot to sway public opinion in favor of a citizen initiative, or against one.
“My hope is that they would not take any outside influence in their decision making process, but that fact of the matter is it does provide a cloud of uncertainty to the voters and certain communities when substantive changes are made,” the Phoenix Democrat said.
Republicans argued that the change is insignificant, and said that the attorney general already has the ability to accept, reject or amend ballot language as needed.
But it’s the “amend” part that bothered Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, who said it usurps the authority of the Secretary of State’s Office as the elected official responsible for writing descriptive ballot language. Instead of sending language back to the elections director for polishing, now the attorney general can rewrite ballot language himself.