Gov. Doug Ducey won’t use his emergency powers to help groups seeking changes in state law use an existing online service to get the signatures they need to qualify for the ballot.
The governor said Tuesday that when he declared a state of emergency last month his focus was on public health and the economy. So far he has issued 19 executive orders on everything from what are essential services to halting evictions.
But Ducey showed no interest in responding to concerns that his stay-at-home executive order, coupled with the fear of the contagion of COVID-19, has made it difficult, if not impossible, for initiative organizers to get the signatures they need face to face.
“These are going to be the extent of the orders today,” he said.
Initiative circulators are similarly unlikely to get help from the Republican-controlled Legislature.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, acknowledged the existing E-Qual system allows candidates for public office to “circulate” petitions online to get the signatures they need to put their names on the ballot.
But Bowers told Capitol Media Services that he’s not interested in making it any easier for people to propose their own statutes or constitutional amendments — even if it is just for this one year to deal with conditions created by the pandemic.
“The difference is what an initiative is and what a candidate is,” he said.
“A candidate is running for an office,” Bowers explained. “There’ll be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds that fill that office over time.”
By contrast, he said, changing the Arizona Constitution — or even a state statute — is more permanent. And Bowers said he doesn’t want to make that process any easier, particularly as once something is approved at the ballot it is generally off limits to legislative amendment or repeal.
Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said the issue for her is even more basic.
“Our attorneys believe it is not constitutional to do this,” she said.
That leaves two options for the groups who have until July 2 to gather the necessary 237,645 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
One is legal, arguing that the unique situation created by the pandemic and the government stay-at-home orders illegally inhibits the constitutional right of Arizonans to put measures on the ballot. Both the Arizona Supreme Court and U.S. District Court Judge Dominic Lanza are considering those arguments.
But challengers are getting a fight from Republican legislative leaders who hope to convince the judges not to grant the exception sought, even for this year.
That, then, leaves Ducey.
It was Attorney General Mark Brnovich who last week first suggested that Ducey, who assumed certain powers with his emergency declaration, could decide that these include the ability to suspend the requirement for in-person signing of petitions.
“The governor is uniquely situated with purposes and powers that allow him to ascertain the scope f the pandemic at this time and as projected over the near future, how it impacts different parts of the state and the practicality of in-person signature collection,” Brnovich told the Arizona Supreme Court.
Ducey, however, said there is no need for him to act. He said that individuals who want to sign an initiative petition can simply download the petition from an organization’s web site, “sign it and mail it in.”
But that isn’t as simple as the governor makes it out.
In fact, in a joint statement explaining their reason for fighting the lawsuits, Republican legislative leaders cited a provision in the Arizona Constitution that requires that “each of the names on said (petition) sheet was signed in the presence of the circulator of the initiative petition.” So that would make the person who circulated the petition the same as the person who signed it.
Rodd McLeod, who works with initiative groups, said what Ducey was proposing as an alternative was unworkable.
“If the governor wants to preserve the democratic rights of the people of Arizona, he will join with us to pursue a solution using E-Qual that treats every citizen fairly,” McLeod said.