AZ House approves initiative restrictions with heightened powers for AG

Republicans in the Arizona House of Representatives approved a bill adding new restrictions on the citizen initiative process, with a new provision that grants the state’s attorney general the power to alter the wording on the ballot that explains to voters what a measure will do.

Meanwhile, lawmakers rejected a proposal making it illegal to pay for voter registration efforts on a per-voter basis, and punted on a proposal that would require statewide citizen initiatives to collect a portion of their signatures from each legislative district.

On a party-line 31-29 vote, the House passed Senate Bill 1451 on Wednesday. It now goes back to the state Senate, which must sign off on the amended bill.

The bill would impose a handful of new restrictions on the citizen initiative process and the people who collect signatures to refer such measures to the ballot.

Paid signature-gatherers are already required to register with the Arizona secretary of state. But SB1451 would impose that requirement on all out-of-state residents who circulate petitions, regardless of whether they are paid. Petitioners must affirm that they’re legally eligible to collect signatures in Arizona, and their statements must be signed and notarized.

Petition circulators must already be eligible to vote in Arizona, meaning they can’t have felony convictions. But the bill, which is sponsored by Tucson Republican Sen. Vince Leach, adds new disqualifiers, barring anyone who has faced any civil or criminal penalty for an elections-related offense, or been convicted of fraud, forgery or identity theft.

Anyone who knowingly omits or misrepresents information on their registration form, or who registers if they’re not eligible to circulate petitions in Arizona, would be guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor.

The House also added a new provision that further angered legislative Democrats, who were already opposed to the bill.

State law already requires the Arizona attorney general and secretary of state to collaborate on ballot language describing an initiative, and what effect a “yes” or “no” vote would have. Under Republican Rep. Kelly Townsend’s amendment, the secretary of state would draft the language and the attorney general would have the power to accept, reject or modify it.

Republican supporters said the attorney general already has the power to modify ballot language, and that the amendment simply clarifies that authority in law.

“Substantively, there’s really no change,” said Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich exercised that power last year, when his office added language to the ballot description of a renewable energy measure that critics alleged was intended to convince voters to reject it. The campaign for Proposition 127 declined to sue, saying they didn’t see the new language until it was too late.

Democratic lawmakers took aim at the amendment, questioning why language should be added to state law giving the attorney general the power to modify ballot language. They also questioned what an attorney general might do with that power.

“Nowhere in the language is there any expectation of impartiality,” said Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe.

Brnovich, who won a second term in November, is a Republican. Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who was elected to her first term last year, is a Democrat.

Republican supporters of the bill said ballot measure campaigns would still be able to go to court to challenge ballot language, while Democrats said the timing of the elections and ballot printing likely wouldn’t leave any time to do so.

Democrats called SB1451 the latest in a long-running effort by legislative Republicans to make the citizen initiative process more difficult. In recent years, the legislature has imposed new registration requirements for paid circulators and imposed several new restrictions making it easier to have petition signatures, even those from valid, legal voters, thrown out in court.

The legislature has not imposed the same restrictions on candidate campaigns.

Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, called SB1451 a direct response to the passage of ballot measures opposed by the Republican majority. She pointed specifically to the 2016 vote to raise Arizona’s minimum wage to $12 an hour.

“The winds of change, political change – I attribute those winds to why we are currently debating and voting on Senate Bill 1451. The change is obvious. People, regular people, have started to stand up for themselves,” Blanc said.

Republicans defended the bill, arguing stringent requirements for citizen initiatives are warranted, given that voter-approved laws are nearly impossible to amend or overturn. While Democrats portrayed the citizen initiative process as a check on the legislature, House Speaker Rusty Bowers said there’s no check on the initiative process.

“There is no check on the 50 coyotes… and the poor chicken they’re eating for lunch,” said Bowers, a Mesa Republican.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the citizen initiative process was initially meant to be about grassroots politics, but is now the domain of wealthy people from outside of Arizona, such as California billionaire Tom Steyer, who spent nearly $23 million bankrolling last year’s campaign for Prop. 127. Kavanagh said Arizona isn’t banning paid circulators, but “let’s not make it easy by not having proper oversight.”

And Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said the new restrictions would keep felons, thieves, fraudsters and other bad actors from having access to voters’ personal information, such as their addresses.

That information is already public record and is available to anyone who wants it, which would not change under SB1451.

Lawmakers in both chambers took up several other proposed changes to Arizona election laws on Wednesday.

The Senate approved a strike-everything amendment to House Bill 2269, which would require legislative candidates to have lived in their districts for at least one year at the time they file to run for office. In the first election after redistricting, which will be in 2022, candidates can meet the one-year requirement by aggregating time spent living in the old and new districts, if the candidate’s residence in the new district is within 10 miles of the old district.

Legislators must already have been residents of the county where they live for one year, and of the state for three years.

The Senate also rejected House Bill 2616, which would impose new restrictions on voter registration efforts. The bill would have made it illegal to pay people based on the number of people they register – mirroring a similar restrictions lawmakers imposed in 2017 banning ballot measure campaigns from paying petition circulators on a per-siganture basis – and making it a class 2 misdemeanor to not submit a completed voter registration form to election officials within 10 business days.

House Concurrent Resolution 2005, which would ask voters to approve requirements that statewide ballot measure campaigns get a portion of their signatures from each of the state’s 30 legislative districts, was scheduled for a voice vote in the Senate, but was removed from the agenda.

Jeremy Duda
Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”


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