In March, Governor Doug Ducey signed into law the biggest wholesale change in Arizona’s initiative process since the writing of the state constitution in 1912. House Bill 2404 ends pay-per-signature petition gathering for citizen-driven initiatives. What Ducey and proponents consider common-sense reform and fraud prevention, opponents call an attack on citizens’ roles in the legislative process. In response, the non-partisan statewide group Grassroots Citizens Concerned (GCC) has launched a mass effort – using the same process the bill affects – to refer the bill to the ballot.
The Arizona Constitution uniquely enshrined citizens’ rights to introduce initiatives, referendums and recalls. The first initiative passed and granted women the right to vote eight years before the federal government did. Grassroots initiatives have put questions to voters about legalizing marijuana, banning cockfighting and increasing the minimum wage. The last, Proposition 206, passed in 2016. HB 2404 opponents say it was the match strike that ignited the GOP’s bills regulating initiatives in 2017.
Rep. Ken Clark (D-Phoenix) says HB 2404 – which requires canvassers to be paid by the hour – and two other bills (see sidebar) “were designed as a set of bills which, put together, effectively shut down the initiative process. Requiring you to pay petition gatherers by the hour seems OK, until you realize it raises the cost 25 to 30 percent. Who are the people who can pay? Out-of-state special interests and wealthy donors. It shuts off the process for citizens of Arizona,” he says. Although prices are negotiated for each campaign, payment per signature ranges from $2 to $7 in Arizona.
GCC believes HB 2404 will cut citizens out of government entirely. Groups proposing initiatives must register as PAC’s and hire a lawyer to draft legislative language. Employment regulations and payroll increase the expense. The “core injustice is the way it attempts to circumvent the will of the people,” says Mike Shipley, founder and chair of GCC (refer2404.org).
In the meeting introducing the bill, sponsor Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson) said it was “in no way designed to limit initiatives coming from grassroots… This takes the voter initiative program and restores integrity to that.” (Leach declined to comment for this story. Requests to Ducey’s office for comment were unreturned.)
Although the bill cites academic and legal precedent that pay-by-the-hour models reduce fraud – for example, someone signing the name Mickey Mouse a thousand times to earn compensation – there have been no reported instances of rampant fraud in Arizona. Because community-led volunteer campaigns generally prove logistically impossible, the pay-per-signature method has become common, and many HB 2404 opponents advocate sticking with that approach.
Noah Dyer, secretary of GCC and Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, says petition fraud isn’t the problem. The real problem, he says, is public disengagement from the political process. “We need to do things to make it easier for people to participate,” he says. “This makes it harder.”
The law also doesn’t apply to candidates, who must gather signatures to qualify for elections. It’s lower-cost business as usual for them. “They [proponents] discussed the integrity of petition signatures while seeking to put referendums on the ballot, but neglected the fact that politicians also seek signatures,” says Rep. Reginald Bolding Jr. (D-Phoenix). “By omitting that, it seemed self-serving.”
At press time, GCC had garnered 2,000 signatures – 2 percent of the estimated 100,000 needed. (Only 75,321 signatures are required, but petition gatherers seek more as a buffer.) GCC will have 90 days after the May close of the 2017 session to gather signatures. If they aren’t successful, the law will take effect. If they are successful, the law will be in limbo until voters weigh in November 2018. The clock is ticking.
I’m Just a Bill
Grassroots Citizens Concerned calls HB 2404 the “mother bill” of two others that have been signed into law:
A HB 2244 requires strict compliance for every aspect of the initiative process, from margins and font sizes in the petition document to legal language. Any initiative not in strict compliance can be challenged. If the will of the people is clear, initiatives have been previously allowed on the ballot. No longer.
A SB 1236, which at press time still needed final approval and Gov. Ducey’s signature, makes the committee supporting a ballot initiative financially responsible for any acts of fraud or forgery. The fines would be $1,000 for each violation – a penalty opponents say will have a dampening effect on grassroots initiatives.