After months of misfires and threats that spilled into the courts, the Secretary of State’s online signature-gathering system removed some functionality to begin updates on Thursday night, a minute before midnight.
On Friday, voters who hoped to sign a nominating petition for a congressional or legislative candidate through the E-Qual online portal were instead greeted with a message: “Your 2022 congressional and legislative districts will not be reflected in E-Qual until all counties finish implementing the updates into the statewide voter registration database. Until the counties complete this work, E-Qual will be unavailable for voters to sign petitions or contribute $5 Qualifying Contributions for congressional and legislative candidates.”
Though Attorney General Mark Brnovich previously threatened Secretary of State Katie Hobbs with prosecution if she went through with plans to update the system with newly-approved electoral districts, the AG’s office wouldn’t comment on its plans on Friday. “It would be inappropriate to speculate on any potential action(s) by our office,” spokeswoman Katie Conner wrote in an email.
The partial E-Qual outage marks the start of a process, months in the making, to implement the congressional and legislative maps approved earlier this year by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. It comes after the threat from Brnovich, who claimed that taking away access to E-Qual during the candidate filing period would be illegal; and after Hobbs sought a preliminary injunction from a Maricopa County judge that would have effectively given her the legal go-ahead to proceed with the update.
In January, after the commission approved new electoral districts, it became clear that the E-Qual system didn’t accommodate signatures from voters in the new districts – and it wasn’t going to be able to quickly. Republicans accused Hobbs of failing to prepare for the predictable impacts of redistricting; the SOS argued that inconvenient system maintenance was unavoidable.
With no injunction and absent a definitive legal ruling, the Secretary of State proceeded to start the updates on March 18. Still, the move came later than initially planned – the Secretary of State’s office previously said it would begin on March 11.
The candidate filing period runs from March 5 to April 4, so the delay had the effect of leaving the system in place for congressional and legislative candidates for almost half of that time.
Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State, said the office held two webinars for candidates and sent almost a dozen emails about signature-gathering and the planned E-Qual updates. She added that the length of time the system won’t work for congressional and legislative candidates will be determined by how fast the counties upload new district information, but the SOS has told candidates to be prepared to not have access to the system throughout the rest of the filing period.
A webpage showing the status of individual county updates labeled three of the state’s 15 counties as complete: Greenlee, Yavapai and Yuma. The other 12 were listed as “in progress.”
Before Friday, candidates for congress and the state legislature could gather electronic signatures from voters who live in the old electoral districts, but not the new districts they’re running to represent in 2022. When the updates are complete, those candidates will be able collect signatures from voters in their new districts, but not the old ones.
Thanks to the “safe harbor” provision passed by lawmakers last year, candidates are free to submit nominating signatures from voters in their old or new districts. And the issues with E-Qual don’t stop them from doing that the old-fashioned way, with paper petition forms.
Tom Collins, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Committee, said that after all the confusion, he was hopeful that the updates ultimately won’t have a big impact on this year’s election cycle. “My hope would be, and I think it’s possible, that this could be … not a big deal,” he said.
E-Qual plays a significant role in signature-gathering, but in 2020, the majority of nominating signatures submitted to the Secretary of State didn’t come through the online system. Of the 388,159 signatures submitted in 2020, about 65,690 – or 17% – came through E-Qual, according to Hebert. Kari Lake, the leading GOP gubernatorial candidate, turned in 15,861 nominating signatures to the SOS last week, with 14,804 of those recorded through E-Qual.
Candidates like Lake running for statewide or federal office aren’t impacted by the updating system, since congressional and legislative district maps aren’t applicable to them. But the issues surrounding E-Qual have drawn partisan criticism since they were first publicized in January.
In a text message, Hebert pointed to a tweet posted on Wednesday by Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, who’s running for Secretary of State with Trump’s endorsement. In the post, Finchem appeared to imply that he would be impacted by the updating process: “I need 800 more signatures ASAP before Katie Hobbs shuts down my link again.” Hebert said that Finchem’s tweet was “just wrong.”e