The ruling of federal judge Dominic Lanza late Friday halted a bid to allow Arizona initiative organizers to get the signatures they need through an online portal.
For organizations involved in the suit and those not involved, a notice of appeal filed Monday by the two groups represented by attorney Jim Barton will determine what direction their initiatives go, since traditional petition signature collection methods are largely wiped out by state-wide “stay at home” restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As reported Friday by Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services, Mr. Lanza rejected the argument by Mr. Barton that the outbreak effectively makes it impossible for the groups to gather the signatures they need by the July 2 deadline using the traditional face-to-face methods. Mr. Lanza noted that some groups hoping to qualify for the Nov. 3 ballot actually already gathered enough names before the pandemic took hold.
Mr. Lanza said the two committees suing in his court — Healthcare Rising Arizona and Arizonans for Fair Elections — didn’t start organizing and gathering signatures until the second half of 2019 while other groups began organizing right after the 2018 election.
“A reasonably diligent committee could have placed its initiative on the November 2020 ballot despite the (statutory) requirements and the COVID-19 outbreak,’’ the judge wrote. And he said that the claims by challengers “fail to provide any explanation (let alone justification) for why they waited so long to begin organizing and gathering signatures.’’
But, as one initiative organizer tied to the lawsuit and one not involved said Monday, the amount of signatures likely to be thrown out only makes it smart to gather well more than the 237,645 verified signatures required by July 2 so that threshold will be met.
Rodd McLeod, spokesman for Healthcare Rising Arizona, said the organization’s Stop Surprise Billing and Protect Patients Act initiative gathered approximately 273,000 signatures before pulling petition circulators off the street the weekend of March 14.
He said the organization, which refiled the initiative on Oct. 4, would like to have about 400,000 signatures for a sufficient buffer. Opponents to ballot initiatives have the ability to petition each individual petition circulator, and if that person — living in any part of the state — cannot make the hearing on the required time, date and place, their signatures are thrown out.
“The reality is our opponents have a lot of money and can keep a very high powered legal firm on the case for weeks to subpoena all of our petition circulators,” Mr. McLeod said. “We have to gather many more signatures than required.”
If the online method of gaining signatures is disallowed, Mr. McLeod and James Leamon, applicant and chairman for Arizonians for Tomorrow, will ramp up efforts to keep petition drives literally in house.
Both said they have reached out to Arizona residents online to see if they want to sign the initiative in their house, and perhaps get a family member or roommate to sign.
Mr. Leamon said Arizonians for Tomorrow is not involved in the federal lawsuit, or a separate case covering four other initiatives expected to be ruled on by the state Supreme Court near the end of the month. But he is keeping close tabs on both and trying to build up signatures by the dwelling unit.
“We have weekly conferences online to get the message out and get signatures without circulators. Especially the students we’re working with at ASU. They’re helping a lot,” Mr. Leamon said.
Arizonians for Tomorrow put together five initiatives, more than any other group. Mr. Leamon said two of them, Allow Toll Roads and Lower Lottery Age to 18, have more than 237,645 signatures.
He said the other three — Remove Criminal Penalties for Speeding, Ban all Redlight Cameras and Lower the Drinking Age to 18 — need “a few thousand signatures,” to reach that mark. But if online signature gathering is disallowed, his group may abandon a couple initiatives to concentrate on the ones with more signatures.
“We definitely have contemplated that,” Mr. Leamon said.
Both lawsuits ask for legal authority to use the state’s existing E-Qual system. Already available for political candidates, it allows people who have a valid Arizona driver’s license or identification to “sign’’ petitions with their name, date of birth and voter identification number.
To Mr. McLeod. this allows for more checks on a signator’s legitimacy while not forcing Arizona residents to choose between risking their health and participating in the democratic process.
“If anything, the E-Qual method is a more secure way of gathering signatures,” Mr. McLeod said.