Lawmakers aren’t the only ones with lots of ideas on how to change Arizona elections. A citizen initiative circulating in the state has proposals of its own — nearly three dozen of them — and most are diametrically opposed to where Republicans are headed.
The “Arizona Fair Elections Act” would expand voting access and reverse a number of laws enacted in recent years, from tighter controls on citizen initiatives to elimination of the Permanent Early Voting List, which critics saw as an attempt to limit the state’s popular early voting program.
It includes provisions to avoid a repeat of the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, including preventing the kind of ballot review that was commissioned by Republicans in the state Senate, along with blocking lawmakers from substituting their own slate of presidential electors if they disagree with the voters’ choice.
The initiative is circulating as the Legislature has stalled on a rash of election-related bills this year. Only one measure out of the more than 100 bill introduced has been signed into law so far, but it won’t take effect until after this year’s elections. It tightens proof of citizenship for people registering to vote.
The act, if it makes the ballot and is approved by voters, would create same-day voter registration, extend the deadline to return early ballots and boost funding for the state’s public campaign-finance system. It would restore the Permanent Early Voting List, which lawmakers abolished last year, and reverse the “ballot harvesting” law that prevents voters from allowing a non-family member to drop off their ballot.
The list goes on, proposing numerous election-related changes in an all-or-nothing format that Joel Edman acknowledges could force some hard decisions for voters on whether to accept all of the nearly three dozen provisions to get the changes they really want.
“On the other hand, there’s something in there for just about everybody,” said Edman, treasurer of Arizonans for Free and Fair Elections, the committee formed to back the effort.
Before voters would face any decision, however, proponents of the initiative will need to collect 237,645 valid voter signatures by July 7. If they qualify, the measure would appear on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
The campaign is sponsored by Arizona Deserves Better, and the political arm of the Arizona Democracy Resource Center. Both groups work on election and voting issues.
Reversing actions at the Legislature
Eric Kramer, director of Arizona Deserves Better, said the initiative is needed to nullify what he called voter suppression bills approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey. The organization is a political action committee that focuses on elections and the democratic process.
Specifically, he referenced last year’s measures that ended the Permanent Early Voting List and narrowed the window to allow elections officials to verify a questionable voter signature on the affidavit attached to a mail-in ballot — both measures that took aim at the vote-by-mail system.
The initiative would reverse those laws, and Kramer said that is a potent selling point in getting voters to sign the petition.
“Once we tell people it reinstates PEVL, that ends it,” he said.
But the 26-page initiative is about more than last year’s election bills. It’s also about removing obstacles to voting.
“There’s more than one barrier,” Edman said.
Some provisions, he said, are simply to keep up with the times and take advantage of what technology can do. Others respond to the state Senate’s ballot review of the Maricopa County election results from 2020 as well as to arguments that the Legislature has the authority to override the presidential electors chosen by voters.
The initiative has had a low profile thus far, but critics are watching.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, called the act an abuse of the initiative process. In her view, it’s an end-run around lawmakers, even though the state Constitution gives the people the right to propose their own laws through the initiative process.
“I think it’s what the Democrats do when they don’t have the majority and they don’t make their case down at the Legislature,” she said.
Ugenti-Rita has supported some of the laws targeted in the initiative, and was the sponsor of the bill that ended the Permanent Early Voting List and replaced it with a system that will mail ballots to people who vote regularly. She also is running for the GOP nomination for Arizona Secretary of State.
She said ballot measures can have unintended consequences that are hard to correct. By law, any successful ballot measure is difficult to change without a super majority of the Legislature or another statewide vote.
Rep. John Kavanagh, chairman of the House Government Committee, noted the dozens of proposals in the initiative and questioned whether that would run afoul of the single-subject rule.
“Tax increases and elections are two different things,” said Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, pointing to one provision that would increase the minimum corporate tax by $100.
Many ideas in measure, one theme
Supporters say the measure has a single purpose: To protect elections and people’s right to vote. Kramer said the measure has been described as a local version of the For the People Act, a wide-ranging bill proposed by congressional Democrats that would set common standards for elections.
Key provisions of the Arizona initiative include:
• Automatic voter registration for anyone who applies for an Arizona driver’s license. Currently, registration is optional.
• The addition of an Arizona tribal ID and a U.S. passport to the list of documents that Arizona’s online voter registration system, ServiceArizona, could accept as proof of citizenship. This would broaden the online registration pool to people who don’t have a driver’s license.
• A provision to accept ballots mailed at the last minute. Any ballot postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day would be counted — even if it takes a few days for the ballot to arrive at a county election office. This is intended to benefit rural and tribal communities, where mail moves slowly and can take up to a week to arrive.
• Tighter guidelines for courts on subpoenas for election materials, which the Senate used as the basis for its election review. Demands for documents and equipment, including ballots, could only serve a “legitimate interest” and with assurances that the materials would kept safely. “It’s to prevent any kind of repeat of the clown show we saw over at the fairgrounds,” Edman said.
• Protections for Arizona electors to the Electoral College. By Jan. 1 of any presidential election year, the method for allocating Arizona Electoral College votes must be set. This is intended to thwart any effort to change electors after the election, as was attempted in Arizona after Joe Biden won Arizona’s 11 votes.
• Lower limits on campaign contributions. The initiative dials back the maximum amount that individuals and political action committees can donate to statewide and legislative candidates. The current maximum is $6,250 for all such candidates. The initiative would cut the top donation for statewide offices, such as governor or attorney general, to $2,500. Contributions to legislative candidates would max out at $1,000.
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• A funding boost for the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, which runs the state’s public campaign finance system. It proposes a $25 “anticorruption charge” on each lobbyist registration as well as reinstatement of a voluntary $5 donation on the Arizona tax form. Proceeds from both would go to the Clean Elections Fund. Qualifying candidates would benefit from an increase in the money they could receive, as well as from supplemental grants funded by a candidate’s donors.
Capping private donations while increasing the funds for public financing are needed to give more people a shot at running for public office, Edman said. A court decision curtailing sources of Clean Elections funding led to a drop in publicly funded candidates and left private fundraising as the only viable alternative.
“It’s really hard for somebody who has working-class job — a teacher — to run for office unless they know someone with money,” he said.
The initiative also targets the state’s corporate income tax as another funding source for the Clean Elections Fund. Many corporations pay only the $50 minimum rate, Edman said. The initiative proposes to raise that to $150, with the $100 increase directed to the public financing pool. The rate would increase to $350 if the courts or lawmakers remove the tax check-off contribution.
Citizens’ rights to make laws
Underpinning the initiative is the belief that the citizens’ constitutional right to enact laws at the ballot was eroded by the Legislature.
To reverse that, the ballot measure would require that provisions in the state Constitution and state law regarding citizen initiatives must be liberally interpreted in favor of the initiative. It also would require that the sponsors of initiatives must follow substantial, rather than strict, compliance with those requirements.
Another provision would limit the criteria judges could use to reject initiative and referendum petitions to whether their sponsors gathered an adequate number of voter signatures.
It also proposes other changes to simplify the signature-gathering process, putting the requirements on a par with those for candidate’s nomination petitions.
Big money to fuel campaign effort
The campaign last month received a $1 million boost from Activate 48, a new coalition consisting of LUCHA, Mi Familia Vota, Chispa Arizona and Our Voice Our Vote, all left-learning organizations that have been involved in voting-related issues and, in the case of Chispa, environmental issues. Our Voice Our Vote is led by Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Arizona Secretary of State, the top election post in Arizona.
The $1 million is in addition to the $606,000 the committee reported having on hand as of March 31.
The initiative sponsors have hired FieldWorks, a Washington D.C.-based signature gathering firm with an office in Arizona, with the aim of collecting 240,000 voter signatures. In addition to the paid petition circulators, Arizona Deserves Better has committed to bringing in 60,000 signatures from its volunteers.
The effort dried up the circulator market, ending the short life of a competing ballot measure that would have imposed tighter limits on voting.
The “Easier to Vote, Harder to Cheat” initiative, among other things, would have required that all early ballots be counted by the morning after any election. That would have required all early ballots be turned in by the Friday before the Tuesday election, which would have prevented people walking their mail-in ballots to the polls on Election Day.
The initiative never got off the ground because of FieldWorks’ dominance of the circulator population, signing up workers for the Fair Election Act as well as an initiative to outlaw payday loans, said Lee Miller, who helped organize the now defunct ballot effort.