Progressive initiative seeks transformative election, voter registration changes




Marie Provine, president of the Arizona Advocacy Network, speaks at the kick-off of the Arizonans for Fair Elections ballot initiative on Oct. 30, 2019. The measure would expand the public campaign finance system, limit campaign contributions from wealthy people, allow for same-day voter registration, and increase in-person early voting. Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

A wide-ranging ballot measure being pushed by progressive activists would represent one of the biggest overhauls of election laws in Arizona history with the aim of making it easier for people to vote and limiting the influence of corporations, lobbyists and the wealthy on campaigns and government. 

The Fair Elections Act would enact a veritable wish list of progressive policy items, including automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration allowing Arizonans to register and vote on election days, beefing up the state’s weakened Clean Elections system for publicly funded campaigns and reducing campaign contribution limits. Other provisions would enact new restrictions on lobbying and lobbyists.

Arizonans for Fair Elections spokesman Joel Edman, who is executive director of the progressive Arizona Advocacy Network, called the measure “an important first step in the campaign to curtail the corrupting influence of big money in our politics and to ensure that all Arizonans have fair access to the ballot.”

“We’re here representing Arizonans from all walks of life. We’re tired of having our voices drowned out by a small segment that has wealth and political power and runs the state Capitol,” Edman said at a press conference at the Capitol unveiling the ballot measure on Wednesday.

The campaign focused heavily on the initiative’s voter registration provisions. The act would automatically register eligible people to vote when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses. It would eliminate the deadline for people to register to vote before an election, allowing Arizonans to register and cast ballots, even on election days.

Voting would also become easier by providing more options. Election officials would be required to count any early ballots that voters put in the mail by Election Day — the current cutoff only counts mail-in ballots received by Election Day — and in-person early voting would be permitted through the Monday before an election.

Currently, in-person early voting ends the Friday before an election. County recorders allow for in-person emergency voting between then and the election, though the requirements for emergency voting vary by county, and many Republicans criticized Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes for expanding it and allowing people to use emergency voting without demonstrating a genuine need.

Much of the Fair Elections Act deals with the state’s campaign finance laws.

Voters enacted Clean Elections in 1998, creating a system in which candidates who eschew private fundraising could qualify for a lump sum. But participation has declined each election cycle since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 quashed a core provision — “matching funds” that provide a dollar-for-dollar match to Clean Elections candidates who are outspent by privately funded opponents or their allied super PACs. 

The Fair Elections Act would reinvigorate the Clean Elections system in two ways. First, it would increase the lump sum that candidates receive, which they qualify for by collecting a specified number of five-dollar contributions to demonstrate that they support from the voting public. Second, candidates could qualify for additional funding through “democracy dollars,” certificates that every voter could use to provide additional campaign cash to publicly funded candidates from the state’s Clean Elections fund.

While Clean Elections funding would become more attractive, the Fair Elections Act would make traditional campaign fundraising more difficult. 

In 2013, Republican lawmakers dramatically increased Arizona’s campaign contribution limits, which at the time were some of the lowest in the United States. The proposed initiative would reduce the limits, which currently stand at $5,200 per election cycle, to $2,500 for statewide candidates and $1,000 for legislative candidates.

The act would also create several new restrictions intended to reduce the influence of lobbyists. Lobbyists would be barred from paying more than $20 for travel or meals for legislators, and would be subject to stricter disclosure requirements. 

Legislators are currently barred from becoming lobbyists for one year after they leave office. The act would extend that prohibition to two years.

Edman acknowledged that the Fair Elections Act is an ambitious proposal, but said he doesn’t think it tries to accomplish too much.

“I think we’d rather err on the side of trying to solve as many problems for our democracy as we can than putting something out that voters will think isn’t doing enough to really solve the problem,” Edman told reporters after the press conference. “I think people are fed up with big-money corporate interests running the show, so we’re trying to be ambitious.”

To pay for the increased costs of Clean Elections funding and increased costs incurred by counties, which are responsible for voter registration and the conduct of elections, the initiative would increase the state’s minimum corporate income tax from $50 to $150. If the funds from that funding mechanism were insufficient, the minimum tax for larger companies would become $350. The act would also reinstate a voluntary $5 tax donation Arizonans can allocate to Clean Elections.

Edman said counties would be able to apply for funding to cover extra costs from the new duties and requirements that the Fair Elections Act would mandate.

Initiative campaigns are expensive and getting more so each election cycle, thanks to a series of new laws pushed by Republican lawmakers that make it more difficult to refer such measures to the ballot. Edman said the campaign plans to rely heavily on volunteers but also hopes to raise money for paid petition circulators. He said the campaign has no funding source lined up.

Despite traditional animosity that the Arizona Advocacy Network and like-minded organizations and individuals have for “dark money” — anonymous campaign funding that often uses nonprofits or corporations to hide the source — Edman wouldn’t commit Arizonans for Fair Elections to rejecting dark money for its campaign.

“We’re going to need a lot of resources, and so we’re hoping we can tap into as many grassroots supporters across the state as we can. But we know we’re going to need a lot of resources to get this thing on the ballot,” Edman said.

Arizonans for Fair Elections will have to collect 237,645 valid signatures by July 2 to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. Edman said the campaign will begin collecting signatures in December, after legislative officials complete a review of the initiative.

The ambitious omnibus proposal is almost certain to face opposition, especially from Republican politicos and organizations that advocate for conservative policies.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who often focuses on election and voting-related issues, had a number of concerns with the initiative, including voter registration requirements and same-day voter registration. And she questioned why the initiative, which she called “haphazard” and “convoluted,” bundled so many disparate provisions together. 

She noted that each of those provisions, if the voters were to pass the Fair Elections Act, would be covered by the Voter Protection Act, meaning lawmakers would not be able to amend those laws if changes are needed.

“It’s really inappropriate and it abuses the initiative process,” Ugenti-Rita said. “This is bad. And it’s only going to make elections worse.”

Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman Garrick Taylor emphasized that his organization has not yet taken a formal position on the measure. But he noted that the Chamber has long opposed the Clean Elections system, including efforts to increase its funding. He also noted that the Chamber lobbied for the 2013 law that increased Arizona’s campaign contribution limits, and would be concerned about any “erosion in individuals’ or entities’ ability to participate in the political process, and that includes concerns over lower donation limits.”

“We will likely approach this new proposal with a healthy dose of skepticism,” Taylor said.