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Campaign to stop AZ universal school vouchers expected to fall short on signatures

By: - September 26, 2022 1:35 pm
Beth Lewis school vouchers

Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools speaks during a news conference on the Arizona Capitol grounds on Sept. 23. Photo by Caitlin Sievers | Arizona Mirror

The leader of a volunteer group of public school advocates said Monday that the effort to block universal school vouchers and let voters decide the program’s fate in 2024 is likely short of the number of signatures required to refer the new law to the ballot.

“I think we will end up short, yes,” said Beth Lewis, the executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona.

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The concession is a stark reversal: On Friday, the group declared that it was confident that it had ample petition signatures to force the referendum on the law, claiming it had gathered 141,714.

But on Monday morning, that estimate disintegrated — and, along with it, the likelihood that the effort to challenge the expansion to Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program would make the 2024 ballot. 

According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, the group filed 8,175 petition sheets. That means the group would have needed about 17.3 signatures per petition sheet to hit the number of signatures claimed — an impossibility, as there are only 15 lines per sheet.

And in order to meet the 118,823 valid signatures required to successfully block the law from going into effect to put it on the 2024 ballot, Save Our Schools Arizona needs more than 14.5 signatures on every sheet. That essentially means every sheet needs to be full for the measure to succeed.

A cursory review of the petition sheets that the Secretary of State’s Office digitized as part of its initial evaluation process shows very few sheets have all 15 lines full. 

The Secretary of State’s Office has 20 days to review the petitions for completeness to ensure they comply with Arizona law. When the review is completed, the office will determine the final tally of signatures. If there are more than the minimum remaining, a sample of the signatures will be sent to county recorders for verification. But if the initial review leaves the effort with too few signatures, that will be the end of the road.

On Monday, the Goldwater Institute and Center for Arizona Policy — conservative groups that have advocated for the school voucher expansion and marshaled a campaign to hinder Save Our Schools Arizona’s referendum effort — claimed that fewer than 89,000 signatures were actually filed on Friday. 

It’s unclear exactly how they came to that figure, but a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office said that the groups had an observer watching as office workers scanned the petitions on Friday.

Lewis told the Arizona Mirror that her group’s estimate was made in good faith. 

“It’s impossible to state how hectic the final week, days and hours of the campaign were,” she said. “We did not intentionally fluff any of the numbers. There’s a lot of room for human error.”

Lewis said it was clear that the effort was falling short of the signatures it needed as Friday’s deadline to file approached, so Save Our Schools Arizona mounted a full-court press to retrieve petition sheets from every corner of the state. The result was that an “overwhelming” number of petition sheets were returned in the final days and hours, making it impossible to tally the signatures as they came in.

“This is not us being hacks, this is us being volunteers with our hair on fire,” she said. “It was sheer chaos.”

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. Under his guidance, the Capitol Times won numerous state, regional and national awards for its accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.

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