Arizona election reform bill likely to be on 2014 ballot

September 14, 2013
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

A new Arizona law that would make it more difficult for minor party candidates to land on the ballot and prohibit some political groups from collecting absentee ballots before Election Day will likely be put to a vote next year after opponents of the measure turned in significantly more than the required number of signatures this week.

The bill, H.B. 2305, enrages Democrats and representatives of smaller parties who say it makes it harder for legitimate voters to cast a ballot, and for third-party candidates to gain access to that ballot in the first place.

Supporters of the referendum turned in more than 146,000 signatures, 60,000 more than required to force a vote. If the secretary of state and Arizona’s county recorders find a significant number are valid, which is likely, given how many signatures referendum backers turned in, the election law would appear on the ballot in November 2014, giving voters the chance to overturn a bill the legislature passed on a series of party-line votes.

Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed the bill in June. Most of Arizona’s 15 county recorders said they supported the bill, which the governor’s spokesman said would speed Election Day vote-counting (Brewer herself did not issue a statement after signing the bill, and there is no mention of the measure on her official Web site).

But opponents see it as an attempt to make voting more difficult.

“It’s yet another roadblock to voting, which Arizona is sort of known for,” said Julie Erfle, chairwoman of the Protect Your Right to Vote Committee, the group that gathered the signatures to put the measure on the 2014 ballot.

The bill would allow county recorders to purge names from the list of ongoing absentee voters if those voters don’t cast ballots in two consecutive federal elections; opponents of the bill say that would put independents who don’t regularly vote in primaries at risk of losing their ongoing absentee status. The measure also prohibits paid employees or volunteers working for a political committee from going door-to-door to collect absentee ballots.

H.B. 2305 would significantly raise the number of signatures that small-party candidates are required to get to make it on the ballot. A provision of the law requires candidates for Congress and the state legislature to receive one-third of one percent of registered voters in their respective districts. That’s far more than Greens or Libertarians are currently required to collect; Libertarians would see the number of signatures their candidates are required to collect jump 40-fold.

Arizona Republicans have lost a number of close races to Democratic candidates, thanks in part to Libertarian candidates who siphon votes away from the GOP. U.S. Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (D) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D) both won close elections in 2012 with a little under 49 percent of the vote; in both cases, Libertarian candidates won more than 6 percent of the vote. Sen. Jeff Flake (R) won his seat with 49.2 percent, with a Libertarian taking 4.5 percent. Republicans worry that a Libertarian candidate could threaten their chances at beating Rep. Ron Barber (D), who won his seat in 2012 by just 2,500 votes.

“This gets rid of choices. This says you’d better be a Republican or a Democrat,” Erfle said.

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly to the bill’s opponents, the new law would apply strict compliance to recall and initiative petitions, rather than substantial compliance. The bill’s critics say that means recall or initiative petitions would be in danger of being disqualified over minor technical issues, like state-mandated page margins or whether a voter included his or her middle initial when signing a petition.

It’s already difficult to get referenda on the ballot in Arizona. No signature-gathering referendum drive has succeeded since 1998, when two referenda dealing with medical marijuana and marijuana possession made the ballot; both referenda failed.

As a measure of how seriously the bill’s opponents are taking the referendum, the campaign to overturn H.B. 2305 has already brought on some of the top Arizona Democratic strategists. Rodd McLeod, the strategist who managed Democrat Gabby Giffords’s first successful campaign for Congress and helped elect Sinema in 2012, is helping out, as is Robbie Sherwood, one of the strategists behind Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell’s win in 2006. Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster, is also on board.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | September 13, 2013