Getting citizen initiatives on the ballot will likely get harder next year after Gov. Doug Ducey on Friday signed a bill imposing new restrictions on the process.
Senate Bill 1451 adds to the continually increasing list of restrictions and requirements on the citizen initiative process. State law already requires paid circulators who collect signatures on initiative petitions to register with the Secretary of State’s Office. The new law will impose that registration requirement on all out-of-state circulators, regardless of whether they are paid or volunteers.
Petition circulators must also affirm in signed and notarized statements that they’re legally eligible to circulate petitions in Arizona. In addition to meeting the pre-existing requirement that they not have any felony convictions, circulators will also be subject to new restrictions barring anyone who has faced any civil or criminal penalties for an elections-related offense, or been convicted of fraud, forgery or identity theft, from collecting signatures.
It will now be a class 1 misdemeanor to knowingly omit or misrepresent information on circulator registration forms, or to register despite being ineligible to circulate petitions in Arizona.
Support for SB451 split along party lines. Republican lawmakers said the bill was simply a fraud-prevention measure, though GOP legislators and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which championed the bill, could not offer evidence that the kind of fraud they claimed to be targeting was actually happening in Arizona.
Meanwhile, Democrats said the bill was intended to make it harder for people to put citizen initiatives on the ballot. By imposing new restrictions on petition circulators, SB1451 could make it easier to disqualify signatures and keep initiatives from reaching the ballot.
Restrictions enacted by Republican lawmakers over the past few years have been used effectively to block initiatives to ban anonymous “dark money” in political campaigns and to raise income taxes for K-12 education funding.
GOP lawmakers have not imposed similarly strict requirements on the petitions that candidates circulate to qualify for the ballot. Some Republicans argue that its appropriate to make it harder for initiatives because voter-approved laws are extremely difficult to amend. The Voter Protection Act in the Arizona Constitution requires a three-fourths vote to amend a voter-approved law, and changes must be consistent with the will of the voters.
Though it will be up to the Secretary of State’s Office to enforce the new requirements, GOP lawmakers and Ducey didn’t provide any new funding for enforcement. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimated that it will cost the office an additional $105,000 to enforce the new laws next year, primarily due to increased costs for temporary staffers to process petitions, along with IT work and software updates.
Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ office says the additional costs will be much more than that. Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman for Hobbs, said the cost will actually be nearly $600,000. She said the office had underestimated the cost of enforcing SB1451 at the time it provided JLBC with the information used for its estimate.
The cost alone of the program that checks petitions for the new circulator ID that goes on each page will total about $425,000, Hebert said.
Opponents of the bill did get one victory during the legislative debate over SB1451. The House of Representatives amended the bill to include a provision stating that the Arizona attorney general has the unilateral authority to accept, reject or modify the initiative descriptions that appear on ballots. State law already requires the attorney general and secretary of state to collaborate on ballot language.
Stiff opposition to that language forced it to be removed late in the process, even though supporters said the attorney general already has that power, as evidenced by changes Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office made to a renewable energy initiative’s description last year.
DISCLOSURE: Hopewell Fund, which funds The Newsroom network that publishes Arizona Mirror, advocated for the defeat SB1451. Hopewell Fund fiscally sponsors many unconnected projects, including The Newsroom, as part of its work “helping donors, social entrepreneurs, and other changemakers quickly launch new, innovative social change projects.” The Newsroom and Arizona Mirror retain full editorial independence.