PHOENIX — A federal judge tossed out a bid to allow initiative organizers to get the signatures they need through an online portal.
“It is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic is currently reaking havoc on initiative committees’ ability to gather signatures,” wrote Judge Dominic Lanza in the ruling late Friday.
But Lanza rejected the argument that the pandemic makes it impossible for initiative groups to gather the signatures they need by the July 2 deadline using the traditional face-to-face methods.
Lanza noted that some groups hoping to qualify for the Nov. 3 ballot already gathered enough names before the pandemic took hold.
The judge accepted arguments by the state that any failure to qualify might be at least partly the fault of organizers. He said the two committees suing in his court didn’t start organizing and gathering signatures until the second half of last year, while other groups began organizing right after the 2018 election.
“A reasonably diligent committee could have placed its initiative on the November 2020 ballot despite the (statutory) requirements and the COVID-19 outbreak,” the judge wrote.
He said the claims by challengers “fail to provide any explanation (let alone justification) for why they waited so long to begin organizing and gathering signatures.”
Anyway, Lanza said, “It is possible that conditions will abate to the point that in-person signature gathering again becomes viable before the July 2020 submission deadline for signatures.”
Lanza also accepted the state’s arguments that the current process — in-person signatures, witnessed by circulators who then sign sworn affidavits — meets the needs to prevent fraud and promote political speech and civic engagement.
Finally, Lanza made it clear he was not comfortable with being asked to effectively rewrite state election laws that have been in place since the early days of statehood.
A separate lawsuit brought by the backers of four other initiatives remains, that one before the Arizona Supreme Court. The justices are not expected to rule before April 28.
Those proposing changes to state law through the initiative process must get 237,645 valid signatures on petitions by the July 2 deadline to put their issues before voters.
The lawsuits both asked for legal authority to use the state’s existing E-Qual system. Already available for political candidates, it allows people who have a valid Arizona driver’s license or identification to “sign” petitions with their name, date of birth and identification number. Lanza said this request would require him to do more than direct state officials to ignore a statutory requirement.
He said the rules for submitting petitions on paper, and for circulators to attest to their validity, also exist in the Arizona Constitution.
Lanza also said the challengers were arguing that the laws on initiative circulators, as being interpreted by the state, were placing an undue burden on the public’s right to engage in political speech during the pandemic. But he said it’s not that simple.
“To the extent plaintiffs aren’t currently able to engage in face-to-face interaction with qualified electors, that’s the fault of the COVID-19 pandemic, not the (statutory) requirements,” the judge wrote.
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