Open-primary supporters sue to restore dropped signatures

2012-08-25T00:00:00Z Open-primary supporters sue to restore dropped signaturesHoward Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star
August 25, 2012 12:00 am  • 

PHOENIX - Backers of an open-primary initiative filed suit late Friday afternoon in a bid to get the measure on the November ballot.

In legal papers filed in Maricopa County Superior Court, attorneys for the Open Elections/ Open Government Committee said Maricopa County officials improperly disqualified hundreds of signatures that should have been counted. They are asking Judge Robert Oberbillig to restore the names - or, at least enough of them to put the measure over the top.

The campaign has a significant hurdle.

Backers submitted about 360,000 signatures. And they need only 259,213 to qualify.

But Secretary of State Ken Bennett said a review of a random sample showed nearly 30 percent of the signatures were not valid. That rate, applied to the full list, left the effort 10,145 short.

But attorney Kim Demarchi, who represents the committee, said a review by petition-drive workers of the report from Maricopa County, where the greatest number of signatures were submitted, found numerous errors.

For example, she said election workers had disqualified 3,214 signatures in their sample on the grounds they could not locate a record of voter registration.

"Of these signatures, the committee was able to find 345 of those individuals in the county's voter file," Demarchi wrote in her lawsuit.

The attorney also said it was wrong to disqualify another 89 names because the address listed was invalid. She said these were "scrivener's errors" like putting two digits in the wrong order. And she disputed the conclusion by county election workers that 20 other signatures were illegible.

Petition backers are also challenging the legality of the state actually verifying only a 5 percent random sample of the signatures to determine if an initiative qualifies for the ballot.

But Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said the challenge will fail because her staffers did their jobs properly.

Osborne said campaign workers never came to her office to look at the actual signatures on file on voter registrations, the signatures her staffers had to compare with those on the petitions.

She said challengers are instead making their claims based on finding names in the voter-registration database. Osborne said that does not mean a match between the petitions and the actual voter registration cards.

Campaign spokesman Joe Yuhas countered there is evidence the county struck otherwise legitimate signatures.

"We've got statements from people who said they signed the petitions," Yuhas said. And he said the names were legible enough for campaign workers to track these people down to get those statements.

All told, the committee wants 736 names restored to the sample determined valid. That number could be enough.

Since only 5 percent of signatures are checked, each one represents 20 voters. Putting those 736 names back would add 14,720 to the final tally, putting it over the qualifying line.

Oberbillig is set to hear arguments Tuesday. But whoever loses may appeal to the state Supreme Court.

A final ruling needs to come soon.

Election officials are supposed to start printing the publicity pamphlet explaining all the ballot measures next week. And the counties will start printing their ballots soon after.

The initiative would scrap the current method of nominating candidates for office through partisan races in favor of a wide-open primary, including all candidates from all parties, with the top two facing off in the general election. This would affect current partisan races for statewide, legislative and county supervisor seats as well as city elections in Tucson, the only city in the state with partisan council and mayoral races.

Hours after Demarchi went to court, a group opposed to the open primary filed its own lawsuit seeking to eliminate even more signatures to ensure the initiative stays off the ballot.

Attorney Michael Liburdi, representing Save Our Vote, claims several petition circulators are convicted felons, which would make all the signatures they gathered invalid.

Liburdi claims felons circulated 518 of the petition sheets. With each sheet having up to 25 signatures, that could void nearly 13,000 signatures.

He also claims other irregularities.

In the end, the fate of the measure could come down to whose legal arguments are more persuasive.

On StarNet: Go to azstarnet.com/news/local/govt-and-politics to read more about local and state government and political news.

State's rights measure fails / A6

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