Petition drive seeks to block 'bad' election laws

Volunteers deliver boxes Wednesday containing petitions with more than 146,000 signatures designed to force a public vote on a legislatively approved plan to alter various election laws.  (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Volunteers deliver boxes Wednesday containing petitions with more than 146,000 signatures designed to force a public vote on a legislatively approved plan to alter various election laws. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX -- Voters apparently are going to get the last word on controversial changes in state election laws pushed through by Republicans at the end of last session.

Backers of a referendum drive turned in 146,028 signatures on petitions to block the changes from being implemented as scheduled on Friday. If the Secretary of State determines there are at least 86,405 valid signatures -- and a likely legal challenge falters -- the law will remain on hold until voters can ratify or reject it at the 2014 election.

"It's not every day that voters get the opportunity to refer a bad piece of legislation to the ballot,' said Julie Erfle who chairs the campaign. The last successful referendum drive was in 1998.

And Barry Hess, vice chair of the Arizona Libertarian Party, said the petition drive succeeded because the law being challenged "represents the only time the Republican leadership has been able to bring together virtually every other political interest known to mankind.'

Key provisions include:

- 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 proposing their own laws through initiatives.

The law also would require minor party candidates to get as many signatures to qualify for the ballot as Republicans or Democrats despite their much smaller voter registration edge. Now, nomination is based on a percentage of registered voters for each party.

"I think it's crazy that someone would get on a general election ballot with getting only 10, 11, 17 signatures,' said Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, who is chairing a committee trying to convince voters to uphold what lawmakers adopted.

But the debate during the last night of the session showed a decidedly partisan purpose behind the move.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, told colleagues the low signature requirements for Libertarians affected 2012 congressional races that did not go "in the direction I would have liked to have seen them go.' 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 Mesnard argued likely would have gone to Paton to help him win.

And in the new CD 9, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema bested Republican Vernon Parker by 10,251 votes, with Libertarian Powell Gammill tallying 16,620.

That change was criticized not just by the coalition of Democrats, Libertarians, Green Party and labor interests who gathered the signatures. Former state Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, chastised former colleagues for trying to stack the deck.

"In reality, what this is is you have weak Republican candidates that get beat and want to blame it on the fact that people had a third choice,' he said.

Kari Nienstedt, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, objected to changes in laws on initiatives.

Courts have ruled they will honor bids for voter-proposed measures if petitions are in "substantial compliance' with the law. This legislation would require court to invalidate petition drives if backers did not strictly comply with every technical provision of election laws.

"The initiative process is designed to allow voters to consider an issue in a democratic fashion,' said Nienstedt, whose group has backed initiatives to ban cockfighting, steel leghold traps and small pens for pigs. "That process should not be weaked.'

Reagan, however, said procedures for enacting laws are important and should be followed.

Other objections surround early ballots.

Current law allows those who get an early ballot to mail it back, take it to a polling place -- or give it to anyone else to take to the polls. The legislation would make it a crime for a volunteer or someone from a political committee to collect early ballots.

Sen. Barbara McGuire, D-Kearny, said her rural district has many small towns where the nearest place to mail something is a post office that could be miles away. She said elderly residents may live alone or in group homes and have no one else to turn in their ballots.

Reagan, however, said Arizona is the only state in the country that currently has no controls on who handles ballots, even in sealed envelopes.

"It is laughable that we don't have any controls on that,' she said.

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