PHOENIX (AP) — A judge ruled Thursday that an Arizona initiative that expands access to voting and overturns a number of restrictions enacted by Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey will be in November ballot, barring a successful appeal to the state Supreme Court.
But supporters of the Free and Fair Elections measure barely squeaked by after opponents managed to cancel more than 96,000 signatures. That left the initiative just 2,281 short of the required 237,645 signatures needed to make the ballot.
Judge Joseph Mikitish’s ruling came after three weeks of furious court action as supporters of the ballot measure and two other initiatives sought to fend off challenges that the Legislature and Ducey made much easier to win.
The Arizona Supreme Court issued rulings on all three measures Wednesday night that kept two of them on the ballot. If approved by voters, they would require greater transparency about political spending and increase the amount of assets protected from creditors.
The high court’s decision in the Free and Fair Elections case mostly rejected opponents’ arguments about authorized signatures, but several challenges to lower court rulings about the signatures split for each side.
The court sent it to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joseph Mikitish to review those rulings and make the final tally to determine whether supporters have enough signatures. He released that decision at noon Thursday and ordered Secretary of State Katie Hobbs not to reverse her decision that the measure qualifies for the ballot.
The Arizona Free Enterprise Club, the pro-business group that challenged the initiative, is appealing the new ruling again.
Stacy Pearson, a spokeswoman for the group backing the initiative, said she doubted the court would intervene.
“Yes, there’s still a procedural hurdle, but if we were in a position to have to appeal, that would just be executive rather than judicial,” Pearson said. “So we’re very confident that the Supreme Court will (uphold) the fair decision that was based on good law and good math.”
The Free and Fair Elections measure changes a number of election laws. It specifically prevents the Legislature from overturning the results of a presidential election, an avenue some Republicans explored after former President Donald Trump lost the state in 2020.
It also guarantees the privacy of ballots and prohibits the delivery of voting materials or ballots to outside groups as the state Senate did after 2020, expands access to voting, mandates that all voters can go to any polling place, expands early voting, and limits the ability of lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers.
“The single most important element of this initiative is that it prevents the Legislature from overturning the results of the election,” Pearson said. “And, it prevents green-shirted Cyber Ninjas from again rolling around ballots on Lazy Susan tables and making a mockery of Arizona’s ultra-safe and secure election process.”
The measure would also eliminate the “strict compliance” legal standard that led Mikitish to cancel many of the report cards. The GOP-controlled Legislature required that standard for initiatives in 2017, making it easier to reject them for relatively minor paperwork errors. Mikitish noted in an earlier ruling that it “requires almost perfect compliance with constitutional and statutory mandates.”
The Supreme Court rulings Wednesday night were the final word on a measure called the Debt Collection Protection Act backed by a California labor union and opposed by a new group organized by Arizona debt collection companies.
The initiative would increase the amount of a home’s value protected from creditors under the “lot exemption” from $150,000 to $400,000, and would boost the value of vehicles, cash and other assets protected from creditors. It also caps interest rates on medical debt and adds annual inflation adjustments.
The court also allowed a measure backed by former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard to be on the ballot if the secretary of state certifies that it has enough valid signatures later Thursday, which appears likely. The Voters’ Rights Act would require any organization that spends more than $5,000 on campaigns to identify all donors, with heavy penalties if they don’t.
All three measures faced signature challenges based on paperwork errors made by paid circulators. But the most important challenge that likely would have kept all three measures off the ballot. He argued that paid petition circulators should file affidavits that they can legally collect signatures with the secretary of state for each initiative they circulate.
Goddard and lawyers for all three measures said election rules only require them for initial registrations, and even if they didn’t, that the secretary of state’s online portal only allows one affidavit to be filed.
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled that certification must be provided for each measure. But Chief Justice Robert Brutinel wrote that rejecting the ballot initiatives would interfere with the people’s constitutional right to write their own laws.
“A finding of noncompliance and exclusion of the circulator’s signatures on this record and under these circumstances would ‘unreasonably impede or limit’ the exercise of initiative power under the Arizona Constitution,” Brutinel wrote.
Goddard, who has worked for years to get the political spending transparency measure on the ballot, applauded the decision.
“Justice prevailed. I’m pleased,” Goddard said. “And they did what we hoped they would do, which is logic says there should have been an affidavit every time, but you can’t hold someone to a standard that’s impossible to live up to.”