Gloria Rebecca Gomez

(Arizona Mirror) Lawmakers are seeking to place a measure on the 2024 ballot that critics say could further hamstring Arizonans’ efforts to pass their own laws.

Since it was ratified in 1912, Arizona’s Constitution has given citizens the right to put changes to state law and the constitution on the ballot, as long as they gather the required number of signatures in support.

For a constitutional amendment — which has the highest bar to clear —  that currently means it needs 383,923 voter signatures from anywhere in the state, which is equal to 15% of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election.

A new proposal would change that to 15% of voters in each of the state’s thirty legislative districts, nearly doubling the signatures needed to 624,263, based on the number of registered voters in each district.

For measures that don’t amend the state constitution, the current requirement is 255,949, or 10% of the votes cast last year in the governor’s race. But the new proposal would change that to 10% of voters in each legislative district, or about 416,175.

And citizens wanting to veto a law passed by the state legislature would see their goal post moved from 127,975 signatures to roughly 208,086 signatures — but the shortened time frame to submit a referendum, which is currently at 90 days after the bill was signed, would remain the same.

This isn’t the first time Republican lawmakers have sought to restrict citizen initiatives. Legislators added three proposals to the midterm election ballot that asked voters to let them repeal or revise initiatives passed by Arizonans, limited initiatives to a single subject and required those enacting a tax to pass with a 60% supermajority. Voters roundly rejected the first but approved the latter two. In light of that success, lawmakers this session have proposed a measure to make ballot initiatives seeking to amend the constitution pass with a 60% majority, and Senate Concurrent Resolution 1015, which overhauls how signatures are collected.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, the sponsor of Senate Concurrent Resolution 1015, framed it as a way to ensure everyone in the state is on board with the language and intent behind a ballot initiative before it makes it onto the ballot itself.

“Right now, we need 10% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial race to sign petitions saying something should be on the ballot,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. “But they can all be from Maricopa County, or all from a condensed area of the state. What this is saying is, ‘No, we want some buy-in from across the state.’”

Counties with densely concentrated populations like Maricopa and Pima have an unfair advantage when it comes to approving ballot initiatives, Mesnard said. When putting an initiative together, proponents tend to focus their efforts in those counties instead of reaching out to more rural areas that, often, may have different viewpoints.

And once an initiative has been approved by voters in an election, there’s little room for legislators to make changes if issues arise, added Jenna Bentley, a lobbyist for the libertarian think tank the Goldwater Institute. The Voter Protection Act, passed by voters in 1998, prohibits lawmakers from amending or repealing ballot initiatives approved by Arizonans unless voters approve a new initiative to do so or a legislative supermajority agrees to an amendment — and only if that change furthers the measure’s original purpose.

“Because it is such a high challenge to amend language that has passed the Arizona ballot, we feel it’s important that this stuff get vetted by as many parties in the state as it can,” Bentley said.

But Democratic lawmakers weren’t convinced. Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, worried that requiring a percentage from every legislative district would make it easier for one district to kill an initiative, and perhaps give outsized power to heavily partisan districts.

“This is effectively going to allow a single partisan (legislative district) to block the desires of the whole state,” he said.

Mesnard rebutted that allowing one district to play the role of defense is preferable to forcing the wishes of a singular county, like Maricopa, onto the rest of the state. He added that the proposal’s approach is a common-sense solution that has been implemented in other states.

Mendez, however, called that claim disingenuous, pointing out that other states have much different sizes and population makeups — and their policies are much less restrictive than the one in SCR1015. Colorado, for example, only requires 2% of each legislative district to approve a ballot initiative and Alaska, a state with a population of under 800,000, requires that signatures consist of 10% of all voters in the last election and who are residents in at least three-fourths of all state House districts.

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, added that the resolution risked increasing the administrative burden on an already difficult process. Efforts to put a citizen initiative on the ballot face not only signature requirements, but often also court challenges from opponents about the validity of those signatures, which must be double-checked by county recorders. Proponents of a measure often aim to cushion their signature collection with several hundred signatures more, to prevent falling underneath the threshold once some are invariably rejected.

Sundareshan worried that requiring signature collectors to fill out forms by county — which are used to verify voter registrations — as well as legislative district could result in more signatures being thrown out.

“As we know, with strict compliance of these signatures, any mistake could then invalidate the entire page that it’s on, and so all that effort gone to collect signatures could be undercut and undermined,” she said. “I really think we need to tread carefully in placing all of these increased hurdles on the ability of our state’s voters to participate in direct democracy through the citizen initiative process.”

The measure passed the committee along party lines and goes next before the entire Senate for approval. If it is approved by both legislative chambers, it would side-step Gov. Katie Hobbs and go straight to the 2024 ballot.

The proposal’s high likelihood of being approved by the Republican majority is concerning for voter advocacy organizations. Brandy Reese, a spokesperson for progressive group Civic Engagement Beyond Voting, said that while it sounds reasonable on its face, it threatens to make it easier for opponents to kill initiatives they disagree with.

“This creates an incentive for groups that want to block good ideas or protect their own interests — especially ones with deep pockets — to put a lot of money into blocking and creating a hurdle in one specific legislative district which would cause all of the 29 others’ (efforts) to fail,” she said.

One of those monied interests aiming to make it tougher for measures to appear on the ballot is the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which has spearheaded or backed numerous changes to the initiative process over the past 20 years. The organization said it “strongly support(s)” Mesnard’s legislation this year.

Chris Gilfillan, a lobbyist for local social advocacy group Living United for Change in Arizona, said it’s not surprising that conservative lawmakers continue to advance ways to muzzle Arizona voices.

“We’ve seen (these measures) before. And they’re all trying to mute the voices of the population of Arizona when they speak,” Gilfillan said. “Whether that’s through the Save Our Schools initiative, or the Fair Elections Ballot Initiative that was struck down last year, the legislature is playing these tricks on Arizonans.”

Save Our Schools Arizona, a public school advocacy organization, launched a campaign to put the universal school voucher expansion to voters in 2024, much to the dismay of Republican lawmakers who pioneered that expansion. But the group failed to gather enough signatures in the 90-day limit to repeal the law expanding the program, and future efforts to put together a ballot initiative would be hampered if SCR1015 is approved.

Similarly, a ballot initiative to overhaul elections, dubbed the Free and Fair Elections Act, that was widely criticized by Republicans was killed in the courts after a tense back-and-forth over signature thresholds.

For Darrell Hill, a spokesperson for the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the biggest problem is the increased hardship the measure would place on local Arizonans trying to address a problem in their communities that lawmakers have failed to. There’s already enough uneven access between the two, Hill said. Lawmakers are elected and paid to propose laws, while citizens and local advocacy groups must confront several time-consuming and costly hurdles.

“This is extremely burdensome for citizens and organizations that want to effect positive change for Arizonans,” Hill said. “This would mean that they have to invest time and money in every corner of the state, even if they have strong support amongst our population centers or within a certain community to raise the issue with voters.”