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Ruling puts Arizona voting access initiative on life support

Ballot, election, vote, voting
Posted at 11:50 AM, Aug 19, 2022

PHOENIX — An Arizona voter initiative that would expand voting access and roll back tightened election laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey was teetering on the edge of failure Friday after a judge disqualified tens of thousands of signatures backers turned in to qualify it for the November ballot.

An attorney representing opponents of the Free and Fair Elections measure said his analysis shows the measure now falling about 10,000 signatures short. Meanwhile, the backers' attorney said they were still analyzing the complicated ruling and that it wasn't clear if enough signatures survived. The secretary of state was awaiting final verification of signatures by county recorders.

The ruling released late Thursday night is the third handed down this week in legal challenges to voter initiatives filed in July. The two previous rulings rejected challenges to a measure limiting so-called predatory debt collection and for one that would require people who fund political campaigns through nonprofit groups to be identified.

Opponents of those initiatives are appealing directly to the Arizona Supreme Court which faces an Aug. 25 deadline to issue rulings so election officials can get ballots to the printers. The secretary of state and recorders says signature reviews show the debt measure will make the ballot, while reviews on the other two measures are due next week.

Attorney Korey Langhofer, who represents the pro-business Arizona Free Enterprise Club in the challenge to the election measure, said appeals are likely by his group and the initiative's backers to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joseph Mikitish's ruling.

Mikitish weighed challenges in 32 different areas of registrations, paperwork and eligibility of paid circulators who gathered an estimated 475,000 signatures. The secretary of state rejected about 75,000 of them, leaving nearly 400,000 for a review by county recorders.

The Free Enterprise Club's challenge has apparently disqualified enough of those for the measure to fall below the nearly 238,000 needed to make the ballot, according to Langhofer's estimate. But he said he’ll likely appeal some aspects of the ruling allowing some signatures to be counted, and expects the measure’s proponents to appeal the disqualification of some of the petition circulators.

The Free and Fair Elections measure changes a slew of election laws. It specifically blocks the Legislature from overturning the results of presidential elections, an avenue some Republicans explored after former President Donald Trump's loss in the state in 2020. It also guarantees ballot privacy and bars handing election materials or ballots over to outside groups like the state Senate did after 2020, expands voting access, mandates that all voters can go to any polling site, extends early voting and limits lobbyists ability to wine and dine lawmakers.

The measure also would eliminate the “strict compliance” legal standard that led Mikitish to disqualify many of the petition sheets. The GOP-controlled Legislature required that standard for initiatives in 2017, making it easier to throw them out for relatively minor paperwork errors. That's because, as Mikitish noted in his ruling, it “requires nearly perfect compliance with constitutional and statutory mandates.”