Sat, Feb. 22

Arizonans may get vote in election changes

PHOENIX -- Voters may get the last word on a package of controversial changes to election laws -- changes foes say are designed to depress turnout and throw roadblocks in the path of those who want to propose their own laws.

A coalition of Democrats and minor parties hopes to gather 86,405 signatures before Sept. 13 to force an election on the provisions of HB 2305. Key elements of the measure, pushed through by the Republican-controlled Legislature in the last hours of the session, include:

- Sharply boosting signature requirements for minor parties to put their own legislative and congressional candidates on the ballot;

- Limiting who can take someone's early ballot to a polling place;

- Setting up procedures to stop sending early ballots to voters who have not used them;

- Imposing stricter requirements on citizen groups who are sponsoring initiatives.

The legislation does actually have something that referendum proponents actually support: a provision designed to retroactively keep Attorney General Tom Horne from deciding who gets to investigate campaign finance charges against him.

But former state Rep. John Loredo, who is coordinating the petition drive, said it would have been too complex to only seek a public vote on parts of the law. So he said a decision was made to put the entire package to voters.

Much of the fight surrounds questions of whether existing laws, particularly on early ballots, are too lax.

Right now, anyone who registers to vote also can sign up for the "permanent early voter list.' That guarantees the person will be mailed a ballot ahead of each election.

Last year, though, a large number of people who got early ballots turned up at the polls on election day. While some were turning in those early ballots, others -- about 170,000 of them according to the Secretary of State's Office -- did not have those early ballots in hand and instead sought to cast a regular ballot.

That caused delays in announcing some results as these people were forced to vote "provisional ballots' which would be counted only after county election officials determined they had not also sent in their early ballots.

One change in the law would say if people on that early-voting list do not use their early ballots for two election cycles, they are sent a card. And if they do not return the card, they no longer get a ballot by mail.

Democrat lawmakers say the losers in that are likely to be newly registered minority voters who have not yet gotten in the habit of casting a ballot.

Of greater concern is another section that makes it a crime for volunteers and members of certain political organizations to take other people's early ballots to the polls. Supporters of the law say it is wrong for anyone to give their ballots to a stranger.

Loredo agreed with that premise. But he said that is not the case here, saying the community groups remind people to turn in their ballots.

"And then, towards the end, if their ballots are not going to make it in on time, they will collect them and turn them in for them,' Loredo said.

"These are not strangers,' he said. "These are community-based organizations people recognize and trust.'

Potentially more significant is the change in signature requirements for legislative and congressional candidates to get on the primary election ballot.

Right now, that is based on a percentage of the registration of each party. That means someone who wants to run as a Libertarian needs far fewer signatures than a Democrat or Republican.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said candidates should each be required to get the same number of signatures, particularly as each party's choices wind up equally on the general election ballot. So HB 2305, which was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer, equalizes the number, meaning a small change for Republicans and Democrats -- and big new hurdles for Libertarian and Green Party candidates.

But during the legislative debate, Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, admitted the purpose of the change is to keep Libertarians off the ballot, contending that their candidates siphoned votes away from Republicans and gave one or two congressional races to Democrats.

Loredo said that is rigging the system for Republicans.

"If you can't win based on your arguments and your positions politically, their motto is 'Just change the rules,' ' he said.

The changes in initiative laws take a different angle.

Arizona's Constitution gives voters the right to propose their own statutes and constitutional amendments by gathering sufficient signatures to put an issue on the ballot. And courts have repeatedly said that organizers need solely to be in "substantial' compliance with all the requirements to force a public vote.

This legislation says there must "strict compliance' with those requirements.

That difference can be critical.

Last year the Arizona Supreme Court allowed a public vote on a proposal to create a permanent one-cent increase in the state sales tax even though the printed version of the initiative was different than one submitted electronically. The justices said backers had substantially complied with the law, though the initiative ended up failing anyway.

Had this law been in place, supporters never would have gotten the chance to make their case to the public.

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