PHOENIX - Voters may get the last word on a package of controversial changes to election laws - changes foes say are designed to depress turnout and throw roadblocks in the path of those who want to propose their own laws.
A coalition of Democrats and members of minor parties hopes to gather 86,405 signatures before Sept. 13 to force an election on the provisions of HB 2305. Key elements of the measure, pushed through by the Republican-controlled Legislature in the last hours of the session, include:
• Sharply boosting signature requirements for minor parties to get their legislative and congressional candidates on the ballot.
• Limiting who can take someone's early ballot to a polling place.
• Setting up procedures to stop sending early ballots to voters who have not used them.
• Imposing stricter requirements on citizen groups sponsoring initiatives.
Much of the fight surrounds questions of whether existing laws are too lax.
Right now, people who registers to vote also can sign up for the "permanent early voter list," guaranteeing they will be mailed a ballot before each election.
Last year, though, a large number of people who got early ballots turned up at the polls on Election Day. While the law allows voters to drop their ballots off on Election Day, about 170,000 of them, according to the Secretary of State's Office, showed up to cast a regular ballot, not to turn in the ballot they got in the mail.
That caused delays in announcing some results because those voters had to vote "provisional ballots" which could not be counted until election officials verified they had not also sent in their early ballots.
One change in the law would say that if people on the early-voting list do not use their early ballots for two election cycles, they are sent a card. And if they do not return the card, they no longer get a ballot by mail.
Democratic lawmakers say that will hurt newly registered minority voters who have not yet gotten in the habit of casting a ballot.
Of greater concern is a section making it a crime for volunteers and members of certain political organizations to take other people's early ballots to the polls. Supporters of the law say it is wrong for anyone to give a ballot to a stranger.
While state Rep. John Loredo, D-Phoenix, agreed with that premise, he said the community groups that assist people in getting their ballot turned in "are not strangers. These are community-based organizations people recognize and trust."
Potentially more significant is the change in signature requirements for legislative and congressional candidates to get on the primary-election ballot.
Right now, the requirement is based how many members are registered with each party. That means someone who wants to run as a Libertarian needs far fewer signatures than a Democrat or Republican.
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said every candidate should be required to get the same number of signatures. While the change will have little impact on Democrats and Republicans, it could be an insurmountable hurdle for Libertarian and Green Party candidates.
Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the intent is to keep Libertarians off the ballot, contending their candidates siphoned votes away from Republicans and swung one or two congressional races to Democrats.
Loredo said that is rigging the system for Republicans.
The changes in initiative laws would require "strict compliance" with all the petition requirements calling for a public vote. Arizona courts have typically said "substantial" compliance is allowed, allowing some public-initiated legislation to appear on the ballot and be approved over the objections of the majority of the Legislature.