Judge set to hear challenge to new Arizona initiative law

Jul 12, 2017, 9:03 PM

Voters wait for the polls to open early Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)...

Voters wait for the polls to open early Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX (AP) — Efforts to get citizen initiatives on the ballot in Arizona will be virtually impossible because of the costs of complying with a new Arizona law tightening the legal standard for court review of signatures, the state’s top initiative petition-gatherer testified Wednesday.

Andrew Chavez of AZ Petition Partners was called as a witness during a two-day trial on a challenge to the new law, which extends a “strict compliance” standard to initiatives. His group has collected signatures for virtually all citizen initiatives in recent years.

Chavez said that costs to collect signatures and ensure they meet the tighter standards would likely go up 25 to 30 percent, soaring above $1 million for a statewide initiative effort.

“Most of our folks are cash-strapped,” Chavez said of his clients, mainly advocacy groups whose efforts to enact laws have been rejected by the Legislature. “When you’re talking about folks who barely can afford the system before this, you’re talking about excluding them entirely.”

The case challenges the constitutionality of one of two laws targeting initiatives pushed through the Legislature this year by Republicans and signed into law by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey.

Separately, Chavez’s group is collecting signatures for a voter referral for both new laws. If he turns in about 75,000 valid signatures, the laws would be blocked until a vote in the November 2018 election.

Chavez said under the tighter signature standard, signatures could be tossed because they were not in the proper box on a form, or if a signature had an incomplete address. The current standard allows for such variations if the voter’s intent is clear.

“You can’t come in as the Legislature and completely overtake and reverse decades of constitutionally rooted precedent” about how initiatives work, argued Roopali Desai, who represents the initiative activists.

The Legislature’s private attorney, David Cantelme, said state lawmakers were completely within their right to pass the new law “to guard the purity of elections.”

“They’re supposed to do these sorts of things. It’s not something they just made up,” Cantelme said.

Cantelme called the state elections director to testify Wednesday afternoon about how the office checks signatures, and planned to call a county recorder on Thursday.

But Sandy Bahr, director of the state Sierra Club chapter and the backer of many initiative efforts, said that’s not the case.

“This would be very harmful to a fundamental right that we have to initiative law,” Bahr said. “It will make it more difficult, it will make it more expensive and it’s likely to mean that more initiatives will fail.”

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Judge set to hear challenge to new Arizona initiative law