PHOENIX — Voters apparently will get the last word on controversial changes in state election laws pushed through by Republicans at the end of the last session.
Backers of a referendum drive turned in 146,028 signatures on petitions to block the changes from being implemented as scheduled on Friday. They need 86,405 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, which would put the law on hold until the 2014 election, barring a successful likely legal challenge.
“It’s not every day that voters get the opportunity to refer a bad piece of legislation to the ballot,” said Julie Erfle, who led the campaign. The last successful referendum drive was in 1998.
Barry Hess, vice chairman of the Arizona Libertarian Party, said the petition drive succeeded because the law being challenged “represents the only time the Republican leadership has been able to bring together virtually every other political interest known to mankind.”
Key provisions include:
• Limiting who can take someone’s early ballot to a polling place.
• Setting up procedures to stop sending early ballots to voters who haven’t used them.
• Imposing stricter requirements on citizen groups proposing their own laws through initiatives.
The law also would require minor party candidates to get as many signatures to qualify for the ballot as Republicans or Democrats despite their much smaller voter registration edge. Now, nomination is based on a percentage of registered voters for each party.
“I think it’s crazy that someone would get on a general election ballot with getting only 10, 11, 17 signatures,” said Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, who is chairing a committee trying to persuade voters to uphold lawmakers’ changes.
But the debate over the law showed a decidedly partisan purpose behind it.
Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, told colleagues the low signature requirements for Libertarians affected 2012 congressional races, causing them to not go “in the direction I would have liked to have seen them go.”
In CD 1, Republican Jonathan Paton fell short in his bid to oust incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick. Paton garnered 113,594 votes against 122,774 for Kirkpatrick. But Libertarian Kim Allen picked up 15,227 votes, which Mesnard argued would have gone to Paton to help him win.
Similarly, the presence of Libertarian Powell Gammill, who snagged 16,620 votes in CD 9, allowed Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to beat Republican Vernon Parker.
Former state Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, chastised his former colleagues, saying, “In reality, what this is is you have weak Republican candidates that get beat and want to blame it on the fact that people had a third choice.”
Kari Nienstedt, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, lashed out at the changes making it harder for citizens to initiate their own laws.
“The initiative process is designed to allow voters to consider an issue in a democratic fashion,” said Nienstedt, whose group has backed initiatives to ban cockfighting, steel leg-hold traps and small pens for pigs. “That process should not be weakened.”
Other objections surround early ballots.
Current law allows those who get an early ballot to mail it back, take it to a polling place or give it to anyone else to take to the polls.
The legislation would make it a crime for a volunteer or someone from a political committee to collect early ballots.