Arizona measure could make it harder to get voter initiatives on the ballot

PHOENIX — Republican lawmakers and business interests are pushing a plan that would allow residents of any one legislative district — or, in some cases, a handful of neighborhoods — to block an initiative drive.

Existing constitutional provisions require people who want to propose their own Arizona laws to gather signatures equal to 10 percent of voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election. For the 2020 election that figure will be 237,645 signatures.

For constitutional measures, the threshold is 15 percent, or 356,467 signatures.

But there’s nothing now to keep circulators from getting all their signatures in just one county, or one city.

That would change under Senate Concurrent Resolution 1023, which would apply the percentage requirements on a district-by-district level.

For instance, if 80,000 people voted for governor in a given district, initiative backers would need the signatures of 8,000 in that district to propose a new state law and of 12,000 for a constitutional amendment. The same proportion would apply in all 30 districts.

Approval of that measure could result in a situation where petition circulators get the necessary signatures in 29 of the state’s 30 legislative districts but the measure would still be kept off the ballot because of the failure to get the names in the 30th.

The measure was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 4-2 party-line vote last week, and awaits a vote of the full Senate.

Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, said it would create more fairness in the system.

“This common-sense measure would require organizers who intend to pass permanent legislation or constitutional amendments that impact the entire state to have the buy-in representation of the entire state and demonstrate support from more than just a couple of urban centers,” she said. “The current process disproportionately disenfranchises rural voters who are most often ignored in the initiative process.”

Kerr told colleagues the idea is not unique, saying half the states that allow voters to propose their own laws through the initiative process have similar geographic requirements.

Geoff Esposito, who represents Living United for Change in Arizona, acknowledged as much. But he told lawmakers that’s telling only part of the story.

In Colorado, for example, it takes the equivalent of only 5 percent of those who voted in the prior election to get a measure on the ballot. And while there is a mandate for signatures to be gathered in each of the state’s 30 senate districts, that number is just 2 percent.

What’s being proposed here, Esposito said, is far more onerous — and far more likely to lead to proposals never making it to the ballot.

“An idea born in Tombstone should not be able to be vetoed by Tempe or Tucson,” he said.

In essence, the lines are being drawn between those who push ballot measures and don’t want the change, and those who have opposed them.

The former category includes Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, which was behind the 2016 measure to boost the state’s minimum wage from $8.05 and hour to the current $11, a figure that will go to $12 an hour next year.

Conversely, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which fought that initiative unsuccessfully, is in support of the new restrictions that SCR 1023 would impose.

This isn’t the only example.

Sandy Bahr, lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said people take to the streets with their petitions when lawmakers refuse to consider certain issues. That is not new, she noted, citing the fact that it took an initiative in 1912 to grant women the right to vote in Arizona, eight years before the U.S. Constitution was amended.

“The Legislature would not deal with that, so it was referred to the ballot,” Bahr told lawmakers.

More recently, voters approved a ban on leghold traps, snares and poisons on public lands in 1994 over the objections of hunters and some rural residents. Four years later, after lawmakers refused to take up the issue, foes of cockfighting got a ban on the ballot and got it approved.

In 2006, voters decided that farmers could no longer keep pigs and and calves in gestation crates. Now, groups like the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation support the additional signature requirement.

Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said the change is needed to protect the rights of the minority against the popular whims of the majority.

Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, agreed. “There is a struggle in our state to really have our rural people have a voice and not just be outnumbered,” he said. “It really does help to give every voter in our state somewhat of an equal footing and not just be, in essence, mistreated by a majority in Maricopa County.”

But Rivko Knox of the League of Women Voters said voters in one legislative district should not be allowed to veto what people in the other 29 districts want.

“To me, that is very undemocratic,” she said.

It is also inconsistent, Knox said.

She pointed out that no such requirement exists for those who want to run for statewide office to get a certain percentage of their signatures from all 30 legislative districts.

And Knox told lawmakers that if the idea of geographic representation is so great, they should be required to get the signatures for their own election campaigns from every precinct within their districts.

But supporters of the change noted that it would not be the Legislature imposing this new system: Even if SCR 1023 gets approval of the full House and Senate, the change would have to be ratified by a majority of voters statewide in 2020.

On paper, all of the legislative districts are supposed to have roughly equal population. But that also means they vary in size.

So, for example, the state’s largest district stretches all the way from the Hualapai Reservation along the state’s northern and eastern boundaries, through the edge of Flagstaff and into the San Carlos Reservation.

Conversely, there are more densely-populated districts in the Phoenix area that encompass only a handful of neighborhoods.

Leach said he does not see the change as creating new hurdles, as it’s all done by a percentage in each district.

“If you have a good idea, you could certainly find people that are going to sign,” he said.

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