Top GOP lawmaker blames Dem elections chief for slowly informing candidates of new requirement

By: - September 13, 2019 7:26 am

House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

A top Republican in the Arizona House of Representatives blasted the state’s Democratic elections chief for failing to inform candidates of a new requirement that could invalidate the signatures they collect to qualify for the ballot, though they have until 2020 to comply with the new law.

House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, accused Secretary of State Katie Hobbs of not properly advising candidates of the new requirement that they fill out a statement of interest before they collect signatures. He charged that Hobbs was putting “hidden forms” on her office’s website, which he called a “hazard to the electoral system,” and he called on Hobbs to improve communication with prospective candidates for office. 

“I don’t know if this is merely incompetence on the part of Secretary Hobbs or something more nefarious, but either way it is completely unacceptable,” Petersen said in a press release on Thursday. “I’m certain there are several candidates who are still unaware that the form exists.”

Petersen warned that candidates who don’t file the statement could see their signatures invalidated.

However, candidates don’t have to fill out the new form until Jan. 2, 2020, and any signatures they collect until then are perfectly legitimate.

The Hobbs administration acknowledged that it hasn’t yet reached out to candidates about the requirement, but plans to do so in the near future. Nearly half of the candidates who have filed to run for state and federal offices have filed statements of intent so far, and the secretary of state’s website now prompts people to do so when they file as candidates.

The requirement is imposed by Senate Bill 1451, which Gov. Doug Ducey signed on June 6. The legislation was controversial and fiercely opposed by Democratic lawmakers because it imposed new restrictions and requirements for people who circulate petitions for citizen initiatives.

The bill, which passed on a party-line vote, also included new rules for candidates, which went mostly unnoticed and unaddressed during the debate.

SB1451 requires all candidates for state and local offices to file a statement of interest with the secretary of state before they collect any signatures on their nominating petitions. Any signatures collected before the candidate signs the statement are “invalid and subject to challenge,” the new statute says.

But the bill also included a temporary provision, known in legislative parlance as “session law,” creating a grace period through the end of the year. Any valid signatures collected in 2019 will be accepted, regardless of whether they were collected before or after SB1451 went into effect, as long as the candidates submit their statements of interest by Jan. 2.

The new law went into effect on Aug. 27, months after many candidates – particularly incumbents – had already launched campaigns for the legislature. 

Hobbs issued a press release explaining the new requirement on Aug. 1, though Petersen noted that few candidates probably receive or read those press releases.

Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman for Hobbs, said the secretary of state’s office has not reached out to any candidates yet to inform them of the new requirement. But plans to do so are underway, she said.

State Elections Director Bo Dul is compiling a list of frequently asked questions about the new statements of interest that will inform them of the new requirement, which Hebert said the office will distribute to candidates. Hebert also emphasized that candidates aren’t required to submit the statements for several more months, and that the signatures they collect this year will still be valid as long as they submit the forms by Jan. 2.

The office does not have a timeframe for sending out the notice to candidates, but Hebert said, “I’m going to say sooner rather than later.”

Hebert said 131 state and federal candidates have already filed statements of interest, while 149 candidates who have either filed candidate committees or register to collect signatures. 

Any activity candidates partake in on the secretary of state’s candidate portal will prompt them to sign a statement of interest if they haven’t already done so, Hebert said. That includes creating candidate committees, registering for the online signature portal, printing petitions or submitting qualifying contributions for Clean Elections funding.

Candidates who filed before the new law’s effective date still may run across prompts on the office’s website. For example, the website’s candidate portal won’t permit people to print out copies of the nominating petitions they collect signatures on without filing a statement of interest, even if they created their candidate committee or registered for the online signature portal before Aug. 27.

Hebert noted that, in addition to the press release it sent weeks before the new law went into effect, the office has posted information about statements of interest on its Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Petersen said the secretary of state’s office should have informed candidates earlier. He noted that Hobbs has been aware of the pending requirement since SB1451 passed in early June, and said her office could have emailed all candidates about it the day the law went into effect. 

“We’ve known about it for three months. You think that’s responsive government?” Petersen told Arizona Mirror. “My big issue here is just with lack of communication.”

He said numerous candidates are still unaware of the requirement, and that he only learned of the statements of intent from a colleague recently. 

Hebert said it’s a valid question to ask why the office didn’t inform candidates sooner. She said the secretary of state’s office will improve candidate outreach moving forward.

The FAQ didn’t go out sooner because the office was collecting the actual questions posed by candidates who called to talk about the new requirements, Hebert said. And it took time for the office to update the website, determine its functionality and figure out how to implement the law. 

“That implementation is not something that happens overnight. There’s a lot of time, effort and development that goes into that,” she said.

Petersen voted for SB1451, but told the Mirror that more than 300 bills were passed during the 2019 session. He also said he was aware that there would be such a requirement, but blamed Hobbs’s office for not telling people how to comply with it.

Petersen said he spoke with the secretary of state’s office on Wednesday and was told that the office believes the outreach it has already done is sufficient, and that no more was planned. 

Hebert said her understanding of the conversation is different. She said that an elections services employee was unable to answer Petersen’s questions about what the office had planned, and that he referred Petersen instead to Hebert. She said she returned his message, but was unable to reach him.

The statements of interest will help prevent a problem that cropped up several times during the 2018 election cycle in which candidates were able to stealthily run for office without their opponents or others people finding out until relatively late in the election cycle. 

Traditionally, most candidates would signal to the world that they’re running by creating a candidate committee, which is visible on the secretary of state’s website. But a 2016 election law overhaul allowed candidates to collect signatures through an online portal managed by the secretary of state’s office before they created a candidate committee. For example, Dr. Mark Syms started collecting signatures to run as an independent against Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, in early May, but waited several weeks to file a candidate committee.

In perhaps the most prominent example, Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa announced after the May 30 filing deadline that he would withdraw from his race and not seek re-election. Tyler Pace, who went on to win Worsley’s seat, had quietly collected his signatures but didn’t create a candidate committee until just days before the filing deadline.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. 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.”