PHOENIX -- Admitting the law is unconstitutional, state election officials agreed Thursday to stop enforcing a requirement for statewide candidates to get signatures on nominating petitions from voters in three counties.
In legal papers filed in U.S. District Court here, Assistant Attorney General Michele Forney conceded that challengers are correct in arguing the statute runs afoul of constitutional requirements to treat all people equally. So rather than forcing the case to trial, Forney said Secretary of State Ken Bennett will simply ignore that requirement for future elections.
Jim Drake, the deputy secretary of state, acknowledged his office initially fought the federal court lawsuit, at least in part because it came right at the time of the filing deadline.
"Since that time, we were able to sit down, spend a little more time, do a little more research and review it,' he said. "And we came to the conclusion, along with the Attorney General's Office, that we weren't going to win this.'
Kory Langhofer, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Arizona Public Integrity Alliance, said he is not surprised the state did not put up a fight.
"We had the law on our side,' he said. "They recognized that and sort of saved everyone some time and money by acknowledging that.'
Thursday's concession does not affect effect on this year's race as no candidate failed to qualify for the ballot solely because of the inability to get the required signatures in three counties. But it will ease the path for candidates beginning in 2016 when corporation commission seats are open, and in 2018 when all statewide offices are again up for grabs.
The result, though, is candidates may spend less time with voters in smaller counties since they will no longer need to gather signatures there.
The number of signatures a candidate needs to run for statewide office is linked to the number of people registered for that party. For Republicans, like those whom Langhofer said his client represents, that figure this year is 5,651.
But the law also requires candidates get the signatures of at least one-half of 1 percent of party registered voters in at least three counties. He said that creates an inequality.
He said, for example, a single signature gathered in Maricopa County gets a candidate less than 0.01 percent of the total needed there. Yet in tiny Greenlee County, one signature equals more than 5 percent of the goal.
"Our signatures are worth less,' he said of voters in the largest counties.
Langhofer said it takes the same amount of energy to gather a signature no matter where someone lives. He said the result has been that campaigns put a lot of their signature-gathering efforts in small, outlying counties.
And that, in turn, leads to the legal conclusion there is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Bennett had initially fought the lawsuit, saying candidates still had to meet the overall signature requirement. He said any candidate who got the signatures of one-half of 1 percent of party registrants in the smallest county would end up far short of the overall number required.
But Drake said part of Bennett's concern with the claim was philosophical rather than legal.
"I think people like the idea of people having to leave Phoenix and Tucson to go gather stuff,' he said.
Langhofer's client has been involved in Republican Party politics for a couple of years. It got particular attention earlier this year when it funded a TV commercial attacking Attorney General Tom Horne as being unethical and urging him to resign or face the possibility of impeachment.
Bennett has said the organization is exempt from having to disclose its donors because it is not seeking to specifically influence the outcome of any election but instead falls under an exception for doing voter education on issues.