Are Arizonans too dumb to be trusted with direct democracy?

covid-19 coronavirus voting wisconsin
A resident waits in line to vote at a polling place in Milwaukee for the April 7, 2020, primary election. Residents waited sometimes more than two hours to vote at this site, one of the few polling places open in the city after most were consolidated due to a shortage of poll workers fearful of contracting COVID-19. Photo by Scott Olson | Getty Images

Arizonans pride themselves on being an independent bunch.

We prefer our politicians as mavericks instead of sheep. We relish our ability to craft our own laws and outright reject those made by legislators.

That latter example – referendums and citizen initiatives – is what’s known in the political science arena as “direct democracy.” They are guaranteed to us in our state’s constitution, but have been under increasing attack by politicians and special interest groups who seem to believe every day Arizonans are just too stupid to legislate.

Efforts to weaken direct democracy intensified three years ago after voters approved – by a wide margin – an increase to the state’s minimum wage and a guarantee of paid sick leave for all employees.

The passage of the Fair Wages and Healthy Families Act was a huge blow to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is possibly the most powerful special interest groups at the state Capitol.

Since then, the Chamber has convinced many of its legislative sheep to pass a number of laws creating additional hurdles for referendums and initiatives, making the process more expensive and time consuming.

In spite of these obstacles, several well-funded campaigns launched this year and were expected to be on the ballot this fall.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and everything came to screeching halt.  

It’s pretty much impossible to gather hundreds of thousands of signatures at a time when events big and small have been cancelled, and people have been asked to stay in their houses and maintain a six-foot distance from others if they do venture out.

The only safe way to collect signatures at this point would be some type of a system that forgoes pen and paper in favor of electronic signature gathering.

Luckily, Arizona put a system like that in place six years ago when it developed E-Qual, a website that allows voters to electronically sign campaign petitions for statewide and legislative candidates.

The process is safe and easy, but because it was created by a body of politicians whose majority derides direct democracy because of the check it places on their power, it doesn’t allow citizen-led initiatives to partake.

That may change.

Last week, four initiative campaigns petitioned the Arizona Supreme Court for emergency access to E-Qual.

They argue the pandemic has prevented them from exercising “their fundamental constitutional right to legislate by initiative,” and note that E-Qual presents a reasonable remedy to that infringement.

Some have suggested it’s not the Supreme Court’s place to determine which campaigns should be allowed to use electronic signature gathering – that responsibility lies with the legislature.

If we were operating under normal circumstances, I’d agree. But a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is anything but normal.

These campaigns cannot simply wait out the crisis. Nor can they wait on the legislature, which has suspended its work and won’t return until next month, at the earliest.

The deadline to submit more than 230,000 qualified signatures is less than three months away, and these campaigns have already been stalled for several weeks.

These are not fly-by-night operations. The campaigns petitioning the court have substantial grassroots followings and a high likelihood of winning at the ballot. They include two popular public education proposals – one to restore education funding and another to limit private school vouchers – as well as campaigns to legalize marijuana and reform the criminal justice system.

These initiatives deserve in-depth examinations and a back-and-forth between opposing sides to explain how they will or will not benefit Arizonans. But unless they’re given an opportunity to qualify for the ballot, none of those arguments will matter.

And that’s a damn shame, because the economic fallout from COVID-19 will make several of those initiatives even more crucial than before.

I don’t know how the Arizona Supreme Court will rule on this matter. Obviously, I’m hoping they’ll weigh in on the side of the initiatives. But regardless of what happens, Arizonans should know that there are those in office who trust voters with the power of direct democracy and those who do not.

That’s worth remembering when casting your ballot this November.