PHOENIX — A Republican-dominated House panel took the first steps Thursday to kill a referendum drive to force a public vote on changes to state election laws.

HB 2196, approved by the Judiciary Committee on a 4-2 vote, repeals last year’s far-reaching package of changes in election laws pushed through originally by the Republicans.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said his legislation does exactly what foes of that law were trying to accomplish when they gathered enough signatures to block the changes pending a public vote.

Democrats, however, suspect something more is afoot than just repealing the changes.

Farnsworth admitted there is no guarantee lawmakers will not just reenact one or more those same provisions once the referendum is swept aside, since some of the changes, particularly relating to early ballots, are needed.

That would force foes to start all over again with one or more petition drives, depending on the number of bills approved re-enacting the disputed provisions.

Thursday’s party-line vote left Democrats on the Judiciary Committee angry over what they see as an end-run around voters.

But they control only 24 of the 60 House seats and 13 of 30 Senate seats, so they need Republican support to keep the Legislature from simply re-enacting much of what the referendum sought to block.

At Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, voted for HB 2196 to repeal last year’s law and undo the referendum, saying he would not vote to reinstate any of what was repealed, and promising to try to find other Republicans who are willing to vote the same way.

Orr conceded, though, he represents a “split” district in which there are enough voters of either party to allow election of a Democrat or Republican, unlike many Republicans who are in “safe” districts.

Last year’s measure:

  • Limits who can take someone’s early ballot to a polling place.
  • Sets up procedures to stop sending early ballots to voters who have not used them.
  • Imposes stricter requirements on citizen groups sponsoring initiatives.
  • Sharply boosts signature requirements for minor parties to get their legislative and congressional candidates on the ballot.

Opponents got more than 140,000 petition signatures to block the changes until voters could decide whether to ratify or reject them.

Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, said the problem with the referendum is it became an all-or-nothing proposal.

He said it may be some who signed the petitions dislike only some of the provisions. Pierce said undoing the referendum puts the issue back “in the hands of the people that are elected to be the will of the voters and to identify what the voters do want.”

But Rep. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said petition organizers could have referred only some sections of last year’s law to the ballot.

“They chose not to do that,” he said.

“They chose to refer the entire thing,” Quezada continued. “So the signatures they collected were statements that they want to vote on the entire bill, not parts of it.”

He said if there were people who liked some of what was in last year’s law they could have chosen not to sign the petitions.

Democrats are not the only ones who opposed last year’s measure and now want to keep the referendum on the ballot. The Libertarian and Green parties, which would have to get far more signatures to get their own legislative and congressional candidates on the ballot, also object.

They contend the move amounts to little more than political opportunism by Republicans to finesse election laws to exclude candidates who may be siphoning off GOP votes.

That conclusion is drawn from Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, publicly admitting, while trying to line up votes for the measure last year, that one goal was to create an easier path for Republican candidates.

Mesnard said it is too easy to “manipulate the outcome of elections by putting third-party candidates on the ballot. ... All they have to do right now is get a dozen or 15 signatures, and on the ballot they go.”

In 2012, Congressional District 1 GOP candidate Jonathan Paton fell short in his bid to oust Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick by 9,180 votes. But Libertarian Kim Allen picked up 15,227 votes — votes Mesnard contended likely would have gone to Paton to help him win.

A similar scenario played out in the newly created CD9, where Democrat Kyrsten Sinema benefited from the presence of a Libertarian candidate.