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Coronavirus puts brakes on signature gathering for ballot measures

Caucasian hand with silver coloured pen

Caucasian hand with silver coloured pen

Initiatives face a strong possibility of not collecting enough signatures to land on the November ballot with the COVID-19 becoming widespread, and the latest projections of cases could mean a shelter-in-place policy is coming.

Though Gov. Doug Ducey said on March 23 that the state is “not there” yet, calls from the state Legislature and U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema add to the pressure the governor is facing to make that ultimate decision.

And it could spell doom for ballot initiatives this year after Dr. Cara Christ, the Department of Health Services director, said on March 25 that mid to late April could be the peak of cases with May the peak for hospitalizations.

Of planned 2020 initiatives, only Smart & Safe Arizona, the effort to legalize recreational marijuana, says it has already collected enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Arizonans for Fair Lending, an initiative that would outlaw auto title loans, was the first effort to die, but before COVID-19 had a crucial impact in the state. It announced on February 3 that it was closing down for lack of financial backing.

But now, efforts like Invest in Education, Save Our Schools, Outlaw Dirty Money, and others have to change their approach to collect signatures before the July 2 deadline. Both education initiatives must collect at least 237,000 valid signatures of registered voters before the deadline, but neither has had ample time so far.

Invest in Education has had roughly one month to collect, and Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas wouldn’t say how many signatures they’ve collected, but said they are ahead of schedule.

Invest in Education made its first attempt in 2018 and collected enough signatures at the time, but was thrown off the ballot for a legal reasons. This year they touched up the language only to face another challenge – coronavirus.

Thomas said they are taking two approaches to collect at this point – sending people home with petition sheets to get family members and close friends to sign and send those back, and a door-to-door approach, while still abiding by the social distancing rules. He said organizers are dropping petition sheets at people’s doors and distancing themselves from potential signers who can use their own pens. This follows a clause in state statute that says the petition gatherer must be present to witness voters signing the sheet.

That plan could be ineffective if Ducey ever decides to order the state to stay home.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom already issued a “shelter-in-place” policy requiring everyone to remain at home to help diminish the coronavirus spread, which forced ballot initiative drives to shut down.

If Arizona follows suit it would have the greatest impact on initiatives and local candidates seeking election, though local candidates have a much earlier deadline to meet – April 6.

Statewide and legislative candidates can collect signatures digitally through a feature on the secretary of state’s website called E-Qual.

Although a 2016 law actually allowed for local candidates to collect online, and while a judge might agree that’s unfair, there’s probably no legal remedy for those who fail to make the ballot.

Elections attorney Kory Langhofer said COVID-19 has “every other elections lawyer” he knows asking questions about ballot access and whether campaigns could mount a successful legal challenge to delay the signature deadline or lower the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot due to the pandemic.

“There’s an argument to be had here, but it’s unlikely to succeed,” he said. “A crisis like this is obviously not common, but it’s also not unprecedented.”

Save Our Schools has also started sending petitions to people’s homes, and announced in a tweet that organizers are “100% committed to stopping reckless private school voucher expansion & protecting AZ tax dollars.” Organizers asked supporters to visit YesSosAz.com to request a petition packet in the mail “for the fam & friends you’re seeing within the confines of safety precautions.”

Stacy Pearson

Stacy Pearson

Stacy Pearson, senior vice president of Strategies 360, who is leading the marijuana legalization effort, along with Invest in Ed and Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety, which would increase public safety and reduce recidivism, said though her other campaigns are ahead of projections at this point, it won’t stay that way for long unless they come up with creative solutions to the problem.

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re both collecting safely and legally,” she said.

Pearson also didn’t provide the number of signatures each effort has secured so far, but each initiative needs at least 237,000 valid signatures – or more realistically, at least 340,000 signatures, in order to provide a cushion for rejected signatures.

Invest in Ed and Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety filed just five weeks ago, so in a normal year, they would be “on track” by collecting roughly 19,000 signatures per week, or about 100,000 signatures so far. With the coronavirus pandemic grinding public life to a halt, those last 240,000 signatures are going to be much harder to get than the first 100,000.

If Ducey orders state residents to stay at home, collecting those signatures will be even harder, if not impossible, given that initiatives can’t turn to the state’s online petition process.

On top of that, depending on what happens at the Legislature for the remainder of session, it’s possible there won’t be a referendum on the ballot either. Lawmakers theoretically have until August 5 to pass referrals through, according to the state Constitution, which states ballot referrals must go to the Secretary of State’s Office no later than 90 days before the general election.

Other initiative efforts that stand to face the same challenges, include Democracy and Accountability Act, which aims to bar lawmakers from voting on legislation that benefits them financially; Arizonans for Fair Elections, which would provide an overhaul of the state’s election laws, making it easier to vote and limiting spending from corporations, among other provisions; and Stop Surprise Billing and Protect Patients Act, which is intended to prevent insurance companies from discriminating against people based on pre-existing medical conditions.

The Arizonans for Fair Elections initiative has suspended operations and is playing it by ear to determine if it will pull the plug on the initiative amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Anabel Maldonado, a campaign manager for the Fair Elections Act, said organizers don’t see a way to ethically comply with public health directives while circulating signatures.

“In order to keep from risking the health of our circulators and Arizona residents, we suspended both paid and volunteer signature collection late last Tuesday [March 17],” Maldonado said.

Originally, the campaign said it had only suspended paid signature gatherers.

Maldonado said organizers have already collected “close to half” the signatures needed, but she said it’s a waiting game.

“Our teams are on standby, just in case,” she said. “Additionally, we are working with our partners to figure out what is the safest way we can organize digitally to help identify our supporters.”

Then there is also Outlaw Dirty Money, which is a constitutional amendment and has to collect even more signatures than initiatives.

Backers need to collect 356,467 valid signatures and, despite its early launch, is facing challenges. The campaign sent out an email on March 23 asking petition gatherers to turn in their sheets so organizers know where they currently stand.

terry-goddardTerry Goddard, the campaign’s chair, wrote that they already have 270,000 signatures, which is roughly 77% of the way to the minimum. Of course, that doesn’t leave any cushion.

“The challenge is that our volunteer effort will be curtailed by the health care emergency. We do not want our volunteers at risk,” Goddard wrote, later adding that the campaign hopes people will turn in their signatures within the next seven days.

Goddard said the campaign actually paused in-person signature gathering on March 18.

“We are looking at all options going forward,” he said, adding that before the state of emergency and other fallout of COVID-19 they were “on track to qualify easily for the ballot.”

He said in addition to the 270,000 collected signatures, there are at least 10,000 more that haven’t been returned. Outlaw Dirty Money finds itself in a pickle of attempting to follow health guidelines while also trying to listen to potential voters.

“We want to abide by the spirit of the governor’s executive order and not endanger anyone’s safety but also must respect the rights of thousands of signers who want to get this proposal before the voters in November as well as the hard work of thousands of volunteers,” Goddard said.

If the “shelter-in-place” does happen, on top of Legislative action at a standstill, Arizona could be looking at its shortest ballot in years.

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