PHOENIX — The state’s chief elections officer said she won’t oppose legal efforts to allow initiative drives to gather the remaining signatures they need online.
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said Monday that implementing the program in Arizona would not take much. She noted the E-Qual system already allows political candidates to “circulate” nominating petitions online.
“I think that in light of the circumstances that we’re in right now, it’s a reasonable request,” she told Capitol Media Services. “We are certainly not opposing it and would hope for a quick resolution.”
Ms. Hobbs’ position is significant as she is the named defendant in both legal papers filed last week at the Arizona Supreme Court as well as a separate federal court lawsuit. Both claims, representing six different initiative campaigns, seek an order effectively overriding the laws that make the E-Qual system available only to political candidates, at least for this election cycle.
“I plan to let the court know that my office can implement the necessary changes, should that be the court’s order,” she said.
The announcement potentially puts Ms. Hobbs, a Democrat, who has retained her own legal counsel, at odds with Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich who is asking the courts to reject the two separate pleas and leave the law intact.
“We all agree COVID-19 is a serious health crisis,” said Brnovich aide Ryan Anderson. “But elected public officials still need to follow the law.”
If nothing else, Mr. Brnovich wants Ms. Hobbs to “consult with the governor” to determine whether any move to allow online initiative signatures is authorized by any of his current — or potentially future — executive orders “before summarily disregarding current state law.”
Ms. Hobbs, however, stressed she is not ignoring the law but simply telling the courts that she will not oppose the two separate legal efforts to permit the use of the E-Qual system, at least for this year. She also criticized Mr. Brnovich for trying to convince the Supreme Court to back away from the case, at least for the time being.
“I’m concerned that the attorney general’s request delays action,” she said. “I hope that the court will recognize the need for a workable solution.”
Separately, U.S. District Court Judge Dominic Lanza has set a hearing for April 14 on the claim filed in his court.
It may not be just Mr. Brnovich that Ms. Hobbs ends up fighting.
Attorneys for the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature already have sought to intervene in the case, though they have not yet filed paperwork detailing the position the GOP leadership seeks to take. Senate President Karen Fann said there is a meeting set for Tuesday to decide how to proceed.
Central to the legal issue is the constitutional right of Arizonans to propose their own state law and amendments to the state constitution.
The number of signatures required to do that, based on the turnout at the last gubernatorial election, is set in the constitution.
But the method of gathering them is strictly statutory.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak there had been legislation, usually sponsored by Democrats, to open up the E-Qual system for initiatives.
But this has not been a strictly partisan affair. Even Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, crafted a similar proposal last year.
He said at the time that few people approached to sign petitions actually read the text of the measure, relying instead on explanations offered by circulators. Mr. Finchem said an online signature-gathering process would make the full text available for voters to read at their leisure.
Mr. Finchem, however, could get no traction for his plan among fellow Republicans, with his bill denied a hearing. He has since said he now believes there are arguments against the idea.
The lawsuit seek no such sweeping change, arguing only that the unique nature of the pandemic has thrown a roadblock in the path of groups exercising that constitutional right to initiative. And, at least for the moment, their claims seek relief only for this election cycle.
Ms. Hobbs said that makes sense.
She pointed out that special actions have been taken, without specific legislation, to deal with everything from health care and housing to restaurants and veterinary services.
“Such adjustments protect everyday Arizonans, and those on the front lines working to keep us safe,” Ms. Hobbs said.
More to the point, she told Capitol Media Services that expanding the E-Qual system would not be a major undertaking.
“Every voter in the state is eligible to sign an initiative petition,” Ms. Hobbs said.
That makes it no different than candidates for statewide office using the system to get the necessary signatures to put their own names on the ballot.
Where it becomes more complicated, she said, is when you have candidates for legislative or congressional posts and the system needs to be sure that would-be signers are eligible to support specific candidates.