Tue, July 23

Open primary measure falling short on petition signatures

PHOENIX -- A move to create an open primary system in Arizona has apparently fallen short.

Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said Wednesday her staffers found more than one out of every three signatures submitted for verification to be invalid. And with Maricopa being the largest county -- and the place where most of the signatures were collected -- that apparently leaves the initiative short of the 259,312 valid names needed to qualify for the November ballot.

But organizers are not giving up.

Joe Yuhas, spokesman for the Open Election/Open Government campaign, said something must be wrong with the way Osborne's office is checking the names. And he said a lawsuit seeking to change her report is virtually certain within a week.

The initiative would replace the current partisan political system with an open primary, where all candidates for each statewide, legislative, county supervisor and Tucson city council race would run against each other. Only the top two would move on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

An initial screening of petitions by the Secretary of State left about 358,000 signatures. Then each county got a random sample of 5 percent to verify.

"We find it unusual that, on a statewide basis, each of the counties on an average, other than Maricopa County, have reported validation rates of 78 percent,' Yuhas said. "Maricopa County's validation rate is a full 12 points lower and we don't know why.'

Yuhas said that 78 percent figure matches his organization's own internal verification rate. So he said he suspects that Maricopa County is doing something wrong.

Osborne, however, said her staffers gave circulators the benefit of every doubt, even counting people who were not at the address they listed on the petitions.

"As long as we can find you registered anyplace in Maricopa County, even if it's at a different address, we take it as good -- as long as your signature matches,' she said.

Yuhas, however, said the county may be being too strict.

He said initiative petitions need be only in "substantial compliance' with state election laws. What that means, Yuhas said, is that the county should count the signatures of those who entered the wrong date in the place where they are supposed to list when they signed the measure.

But Osborne said that's not what the law says. She explained that the date is important because it determines if people were registered to vote at they signed the petitions.

For example, she said, her staffers found that 146 people registered to vote after they had signed. Those signatures are invalid.

While the numbers seem small, they actually are more significant: Because each county gets only 5 percent of the signatures submitted, a single signature really represents 20 in the entire campaign.

The big problem, Osborne said, is that her staffers were totally unable to find any registration records, at any address, for about 3,200 of the people who signed out of the 13,076 signatures her office was given to validate. That's close to one out of four.

More to the point, using that 20-to-1 ratio, that problem alone translates out to 64,000 invalid signatures in just her county alone.

There were other problems. Osborne said 139 signatures were "just flat illegible,' even when her staffers tried to match them with addresses. That extrapolates out to another 2,780 bad names.

Yuhas conceded that if he cannot get a court to boost Maricopa County's verification rate the measure is doomed to remain off the ballot.

That would be anticlimactic after initiative organizers already won one court battle.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Mark Brain had ruled that the measure violated a requirement for constitutional amendment to deal with only one subject. But that decision was overturned late last week by the Arizona Supreme Court.