Organizers are calling it “Petition-Palooza.”
The 2021 Republican-led legislature passed so many bills that seek to undercut laws passed as referendums — and which suppress voting — that an array of nonprofit interest groups are pursuing six ballot referendums to overturn them; one group is proposing an initiative to ban dark money.
The proposition group that’s been established longest is the Stop Dark Money campaign, which is circulating its “Voters’ Right to Know” initiative petition. Polls show that 90% of Arizonans support eliminating dark money, a broad, bipartisan majority. According to a story in The Arizona Republic on Stop Dark Money, in 2018 liberal groups began outspending Republicans on federal races, and in 2020 all groups spent more than $1 billion.
The Stop Dark Money group has evolved in the years since it began its mission to expose dark money from anonymous sources, even as it was attacked in lawsuits by dark-money donors, including the Koch Brothers. ‘Dark money’ refers to the ability of independent expenditure groups to donate to campaigns anonymously, so that voters are unaware of which individuals or special-interest groups are influencing elections. While most states require disclosures, Arizona does not.
The group is seeking to put a legislative initiative on the November 2022 ballot that will require full disclosure of political dark-money spending, down to the original source of any donation over $5,000, in state and local elections and for ballot propositions. If the group gathers 237,645 valid signatures (the goal is 300,000 to include a buffer) then it will finally reach the ballot.
Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who has led the Stop Dark Money effort from the beginning, said that people started requesting petitions across the state as early as March, before pandemic-related restrictions were lifted. He noted that Yavapai County has had the largest volume of petition signatures based on population in the past (6%). He attributes that to area activists from several groups.
“Regardless of whether they are liberal, conservative, independent or whatever, they don’t think it’s right for somebody to try to influence another citizen’s votes without telling them who they are and what their motivation is in trying to put out these ads,” Goddard said. In Phoenix, an anti-dark-money resolution got 85% support, and in Tempe it won 91% support.
“The only surprise here is why the Legislature, with that much popular support for the proposition, didn’t do it themselves,” Goddard said. “The Legislature is supposed to represent the will of the people.” In response to the recent Prescott mayoral and Council races, Goddard said he’s not surprised that some candidates have rejected affiliation with negative advertising.
“I think that’s where candidates have to go in the future, because the default for the dark-money forces is negative campaigning, and that’s pretty easy to understand, because a contributor who has a reputation to protect is way deep in the background. Their identity is not disclosed, and that’s the way they want it. The only thing that appears on the advertisement is ‘Citizens for America’ or whatever nonsense name they come up with that tells you nothing about who they are.”
Diane McQueen, a Prescott-based organizer for the countywide effort, said that she hopes the third time is the charm for getting this initiative on the ballot, after legal challenges and the pandemic kept it off twice before. The group uses volunteers all over the state to gather signatures. Their locations for reaching the voters include public libraries, art festivals, music festivals, trailheads, bookstores and other public and private locations. Volunteers are gathering signatures from their families, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
“The first time they (got the initiative off the ballot), they were able to prove that the summary was confusing,” McQueen said. “They weren't able to do that this time … there's a good summary. So now their goal is to make the summary even bigger (than 100 words), because then they’ve got more chances to say something is wrong.”
Arizona Deserves Better has filed three referendums aimed at stopping three voter-suppression laws that the Governor has signed. If the group gathers 118,832 valid signatures (the goal is 170,000 to include a buffer), then these laws will not be able to take effect and will instead be referred to the November 2022 ballot for all voters to weigh in on.
1. SB1485 is known as the PEVL Purge. This law renames the Permanent Early Voting List to the Active Early Voting list. The law states:
THE VOTER FAILS TO VOTE AN EARLY BALLOT IN ALL ELECTIONS FOR TWO CONSECUTIVE ELECTION CYCLES. FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS PARAGRAPH, "ELECTION" MEANS ANY REGULAR PRIMARY OR REGULAR GENERAL ELECTION FOR WHICH THERE WAS A FEDERAL RACE ON THE BALLOT OR FOR WHICH A CITY OR TOWN CANDIDATE PRIMARY OR FIRST ELECTION OR CITY OR TOWN CANDIDATE SECOND, GENERAL OR RUNOFF ELECTION WAS ON THE BALLOT.
One of the group’s issues with the law is its vagueness. It’s not clear whether it means that “at least one early ballot in any election for two consecutive election cycles” must be cast, or whether it literally means “an early ballot in all elections.” That could mean if there’s a special election to fill a seat and someone doesn’t vote, they are off the PEVL. Special elections typically attract extremely low turnout. Arizona Deserves Better doesn’t want to wait until the 2022 primary to learn the Legislature’s exact intent.
“If someone misses a municipal election in 2023, does that mean they’re thrown off the PEVL?”McQueen asked. “We don’t know.”
2. HB2569 attacks the right of the Secretary of State’s office to apply for grants to improve elections. It’s an obvious way of striking back at the current Secretary for doing just that, and conducting close oversight on the November 2020 election, one of the best-run and most scrutinized elections in state history. It’s the most cynical law of all, considering the incompetence of those who conducted the ballot audit, more commonly known as the ‘fraudit,’ in which the state Senate employed an unqualified firm to inspect and do its own tally of the ballots. Here’s what it says specifically:
NOTWITHSTANDING ANY OTHER LAW, THIS STATE AND A CITY, TOWN, COUNTY, SCHOOL DISTRICT OR OTHER PUBLIC BODY THAT CONDUCTS OR ADMINISTERS ELECTIONS MAY NOT RECEIVE OR EXPEND PRIVATE MONIES FOR PREPARING FOR, ADMINISTERING OR CONDUCTING AN ELECTION, INCLUDING REGISTERING VOTERS.
This law will severely affect areas such as the tribal nations in very remote areas that have benefited from grants allowing them to install additional ballot dropboxes during the 2020 election cycle.
3. SB1819: This final bill was rushed through budget reconciliation and contains a number of provisions related to voting. The most objectionable one to Arizona Deserves Better requires a specific type of ink and paper to be used for ballots, as well as a barcode or QR code on every ballot, which could imperil the constitutional requirement of ballot secrecy. It also transfers certain official powers from the Secretary of State to the Legislature.
Invest in Arizona is circulating three other referendum petitions related to the state legislature’s effort to foil public education funding mandated by Proposition 208, passed in 2020. The legislature this year passed a flat tax that drops the tax rates first to 2.55% and 2.98% and then to 2.5% over three years, which would be the lowest flat income tax in the nation. The previous rates ranged from 8% to 2.59%. Additionally, the legislature put a 4.5% cap on income tax owed by people subject to the education tax created by Prop 208. Two referendum petitions seek to reverse those changes.
McQueen said the petitions have to conform to “strict compliance,” which means the format they’re in, the way they’re filled out and the accuracy of the information all are considered for acceptance. The Republican majority is attempting to throw out as many signatures and forms as possible, so that they don’t reach the ballot.
Because of the number of initiatives and the passing along of petitions from the Valley to Northern Arizona that occurs on a regular basis, a system of relaying petitions from person to person has developed, which McQueen calls “the Pony Express.” Some petitions have to include all the language describing the proposed law, making them too unwieldy to mail in bulk. The one targeting the budget-reconciliation bill, for instance, is 56 pages long.
“There's a piece in the bill that says ballots will now have to printed with QR codes, holograms, watermarks or whatever, to prevent what they say will compromise security,” McQueen said. “Right.” She laughs at the absurdity of the bill, noting that it’s yet another attempt by Republicans to try to cast doubt on the security of elections. “Not only that, the section of that bill, from what I've heard, is so tightly written that there's only one company in the country that can do this.”
McQueen noted that a recent bill also mandates that the Game and Fish Department provide voter registration for those buying hunting or fishing licenses. But no other state department is included, such as those that administer the state health plan or the office that administers Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Clearly, the idea is that more Republicans hunt than do Democrats.
“These voter-suppression efforts reek of desperation to me,” McQueen said, “and I don't think anything they're doing is going to matter. But we still have to counter it …. If you look at each of these by itself, it's sickening.”
To short-circuit challenges to the initiatives, each group is submitting them to the state Legislative Counsel for review to ensure the legal language is correct. They’re also only using circulators who live in Arizona, in addition to a large group of volunteers, because in the first attempt the Koch brothers funded a legal attack involving subpoenas for all circulators demanding that they testify personally to the accuracy of the signatures they collected. If the circulators didn’t show up, all their petitions were thrown out. Many were from out of state and didn’t have enough time to plan to travel to the area.
“By the time we got the subpoenas, it was almost too late to bring all these people in from out of state — and it's very expensive,” McQueen said.
The pandemic sank plans to get signatures for a dark-money campaign last year, but the situation looks much brighter this year on all fronts. The three groups, Stop Dark Money, Arizona Deserves Better, and Invest in Arizona, are working together to gather signatures, tripling their potential to complete their missions by the deadline. Groups working to stop the new laws from being implemented must turn their referendum petitions in within 90 days after passage. Stop Dark Money has the longest petition lead time — a year from now.
The groups came together on July 24 for a gathering called “Sign to Protect Our Elections.” This was a play on former president Trump’s rally in Phoenix the same day, billed as “Rally to Protect Our Elections.” People were able to sign all seven petitions (one initiative and six referendums). Other Day of Action events will be held through mid-September.