By BOB CHRISTIE, Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected challenges to two voter initiatives filed for November’s ballot, one already certified for the ballot and a second that appears likely to make it when a final signature verification is complete.
A challenge to a third measure measure expanding voting access and rolling back restrictions enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature was mainly rejected by the Supreme Court. But several challenges to lower court rulings on signatures split for each side and the court sent it to back to a trial court. It may not have enough qualifying signatures.
Opponents, mainly business groups, argued that paid petition circulators for all three measures failed to comply with the law because they did not file affidavits certifying they met legal requirements each time they told the secretary of state they would gather needed signatures for a particular initiative.
Backers of the measures said they followed the rules set out by the secretary of state’s office for registrations and that the secretary’s online portal does not allow more than one affidavit to be filed.
Lower courts said only one affidavit was required. But Gov. Doug Ducey and the opponents of the measures disagreed and asked the Supreme Court to throw out any petitions gathered by people who collected signatures for more than one initiative but filed only one affidavit.
In brief orders rejecting the challenges, Chief Justice Robert Brutinel said the law does in fact require a new certification for each initiative. But the seven justices said that because the secretary of state’s system did not allow it, they would not reject the petitions because it would impede the constitutional right of the people to write their own laws.
“The Court unanimously declines to find that the initiative committee … or any individual circulator failed to comply with (the law) when the SOS has prevented such compliance,” Brutinel wrote. “A finding of non-compliance and disqualification of circulator signatures on this record and under these circumstances would “unreasonably hinder or restrict” the exercise of the initiative power under … the Arizona Constitution.”
Former Attorney General Terry Goddard, who has worked for years to get the “Voters Right to Know” measure on the ballot, applauded the ruling.
“Justice prevailed. I’m delighted,” Goddard said. “And they did what we hoped they would do, which is to say the logic says that there should have been an affidavit each time, but you can’t hold someone to a standard that it’s impossible to comply with.”
The three rulings said the court has “every expectation” that the secretary of state’s office will fix the circulator registration portal so that it accepts a new affidavit for each initiative someone wants to collect signatures.
The court also rejected a challenge to a lower court’s ruling that said circulators that lived in multi-unit housing must list their unit number on their petitions and other forms.
The Voters Right to Know measure is the only one that still awaits certification of the qualifying signatures turned in by backers by county recorders and the secretary of state. But Goddard said that 13 of 15 counties have completed their reviews and about 80% of the signatures were deemed valid, a high margin that will easily get the initiative on the ballot if the final two counties come in anywhere near that rate.
The justices also rejected a challenge to the 100-word summary voters saw when they signed petitions to get the Predatory Debt Collection Protection Act on the ballot. Opponents had argued the last sentence that said it did not change laws related to secured debt was misleading.
“The summary, when read as a whole, is not objectively false or misleading,” Brutinel wrote.
The initiative would raise the amount of a home’s value shielded from creditors under the “homestead exemption” from $150,000 to $400,000, and boosts the value of vehicles, cash and other possessions shielded from creditors. It also caps interest rates on medical debts and adds yearly inflation adjustments.
The Free and Fair Elections measure hangs by a shoestring despite the high court’s ruling. Its fate is tied to how a final signature count is tallied after the high court said some that were rejected should be counted and some accepted should be rejected.
Initiatives must have 238,000 valid signatures to make the ballot.
A lower court judge is still wrestling with challenges to some of its qualifying signatures and will now have additional work based on the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Attorney Jim Barton, who represents the committee backing the election measure, said it will take until Thursday to know the outcome, “but the Committee is hopeful that this means we stay on the ballot.”
Initiative signatures and documents are weighed by judges under a “strict compliance” legal standard the GOP-controlled Legislature and Ducey put in place in 2017. GOP lawmakers said it was needed because once an initiative is enacted it is nearly impossible for the Legislature to change it. The change made it easier to throw them out for relatively minor paperwork errors.
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