PHOENIX -- Contending one and maybe two congressional races were stolen from them, Republican legislators have approved a measure to finesse election laws to keep out the Libertarians who they say are taking votes from their candidates.
The change, tucked into a much larger set of revisions to election laws, would sharply increase the number of signatures that Libertarian and Green Party candidates need just to get on the ballot for their own legislative and congressional primaries.
Barry Hess, the Libertarian Party's former candidate for governor, said in most cases the number of signatures required is far more than the number of people actually registered in most districts. He said unless these minor parties could find independents willing to help them get on the ballot, it would create an "insurmountable obstacle' to any minor party candidate getting nominated, much less being on the general election ballot.
But Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, admitted publicly that's precisely the purpose of the change. And the real goal is creating an easier path for GOP candidates to win.
Mesnard, in a late-night bid on the House floor last week on to corral necessary votes for the change, argued that people try to "manipulate the outcome of elections by putting third-party candidates on the ballot.'
"All they have to do right now is get a dozen or 15 signatures and on the ballot they go,' Mesnard said, saying he was aiming his comments at the Republicans who control the Legislature. And he claimed that at least one congressional race and maybe two did not go "in the direction I would have liked to have seen them go' -- and would have gone, Mesnard contends, had this law been in place last year.
In CD 1, Republican Jonathan Paton fell short in his bid to oust incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick. Paton garnered 113,594 votes against 122,774 for Kirkpatrick.
But Libertarian Kim Allen picked up 15,227 votes -- votes that Mesnard contended likely would have gone to Paton to help him win.
Similarly, in the newly created CD 9, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema bested Republican Vernon Parker by 10,251 votes, with Libertarian Powell Gammill tallying 16,620.
Mesnard said upping the signature requirements for minor parties makes these races "much less vulnerable to sham candidates and manipulation.'
And to drive the point home, Mesnard said the legislation should be supported by Republicans who were "disappointed in the outcome' of those races.'
"So I strongly urge folks, at least in my party, who looked at the last election in November of 2012 and were disappointed with the outcome, and looked at a couple of the third-party candidates that were in there and how they impacted us in a detrimental way' to support the legislation.
And to drive home the point to his GOP colleagues, he noted this change applies not only to congressional races but also to legislative battles. Mesnard told them that if they didn't vote for this change, they could be personally and directly affected in their next race.
"I can't believe we wouldn't see the benefit of this,' Mesnard told fellow Republicans.
The change is all about numbers.
Under existing law, candidates for each party have to gather signatures equal to one-half of one percent of the party's voter registration.
Last election, for example, that meant Republicans wanting to run in the First Congressional District needed 568 signatures. Democrats needed 721 to get on the ballot. And Libertarians needed just 12.
This legislation changes the percentage for all to one-sixth of one percent of the total voter registration, or 618.
"It's not fair, or even potentially positive or productive,' Hess said, calling the provision "petty political games.'
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, a key proponent of the change, said it's only fair that all candidates have the same hurdle to get nominated.
Hess said even if Farnsworth's intentions were not to cripple the minor parties, all that is irrelevant.
"I can't imagine trying to win elections like this,' Hess said.
The Libertarians are not alone. Angel Torres, chairman of the Arizona Green Party, also registered his objections.
The measure, HB 2305, is currently on the desk of Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican like Mesnard. But Matthew Benson, her press aide, said his boss is still reviewing the measure and has made no decisions.
If Brewer signs it, there are some other options. D.J. Quinlan, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, said his organization might finance a referendum to take the issue to voters. And Rep. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said a legal challenge remains possible, not only to this provision but other changes in the law including alterations to procedures for early ballots.
Mesnard's logic in urging Republicans to support the change presumes that most of those votes for Allen would have gone to Paton. Even the GOP candidate isn't convinced that's the case.
"I never met a Libertarian who supported Obamacare,' Paton said, something Kirkpatrick supported and he opposed. Allen said during the race he supports a "single-payer' system but would not repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Allen also took some other positions which were decidedly contrary to those being espoused by Paton and Republicans.
He espoused expanding Medicaid to make more people eligible. And Allen said he would have voted against SB 1070, the 2010 legislation aimed at giving police more power to detain and arrest people suspected of being in his country illegally.
Hess bristled at the idea that somehow Libertarians are "spoilers' in any race.
"I don't believe there is such a thing as a 'spoiler,' ' he said, saying all the candidates of all the parties are working the same "fishing pool' in the general election to get voter support.
Specific races aside, Hess said it's wrong for the Republican-controlled Legislature to use its powers this way. And Hess said it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the primary process -- and even the role of the parties.
"The primary is just to put the people on the ballot to give the public an opportunity to vote for different perceptions,' he said. Hess said upping the signature requirements as a sign of whether a candidate has broad enough support to be on the ballot is effectively moving the general election into the primary -- and then leaving voices other than the major parties out of the general election where it really matters.