Why Arizona needs initiative reform

Glenn Hamer

  February 9, 2017

Last July, proponents of a higher minimum wage in Arizona submitted over 270,000 petition signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office in hopes of securing a spot on the November ballot. Tens of thousands of those signatures were apparently fraudulent.

We know this because a superior court judge determined as much when the validity of the signatures was challenged by the Arizona Restaurant Association. We also know this because the campaign behind what came to be Proposition 206 pointed to the invalid signatures as justification for not paying the firm it contracted to collect signatures after that firm sued.

None of that mattered, however. The initiative still got on the ballot due to a technicality and, as has been the case with minimum wage initiatives across the country, passed by a wide margin.

Arizona is now paying the price. Caregivers to the developmentally disabled are cutting services. Schools are scrambling to adjust budgets. Small businesses are raising prices and laying off workers.


It’s bad. It could have been worse.

And yet as bad as Proposition 206 has been for Arizona, it could have been worse.

Propositions dealing with solar energy mandates, a greatly expanded taxpayer-funded elections scheme, and compensation caps on health care executives were all poised to join the ballot alongside Proposition 206 and Proposition 205, which sought to legalize recreational marijuana.

Thankfully, Proposition 205 was defeated by voters, while the other issues didn’t make the ballot. The compensation cap campaign threw in the towel only after it submitted signatures, but didn’t defend their validity after the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry challenged them in court.

The Chamber worked hard to campaign to defeat marijuana legalization and the minimum wage measures. Our efforts helped win the day on the marijuana initiative. But campaign resources aren’t easy to come by. Had we been forced to battle an additional three bad initiatives, the odds for success would not have been in our favor – even if the policy arguments were, as evidenced by our experience on minimum wage.


Arizona is vulnerable to out-of-state activists

One would not typically think that a state with a pro-business governor and a state House and state Senate similarly focused on economic growth would be a playground for out-of-state activists aligned with labor unions and the environmental movement.

But because of the state’s citizen initiative process, Arizona is vulnerable. The barrier to entry onto an Arizona ballot is so low that much of the progress accomplished by our elected officials to make Arizona more competitive is at risk for being undone by out-of-state interests who are more than happy to carry out their destructive agendas here.

Arizona’s statewide ballot propositions are rarely the result of some grassroots, homegrown effort. Much of what lands on our ballots via the initiative process is hatched out of state.

Everything from the initiative language, to the funding, to even the signature gatherers themselves are imported into Arizona.

The solar activists? They hailed from California. A D.C.-based pro-pot group was behind Proposition 205. The labor union behind the health care compensation cap, SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, didn’t even go to the trouble to find a local to fill out the paperwork the campaign submitted to the secretary of state; the organizers provided a California address.


The Voter Protection Act only protects bad ideas



That’s because Arizona is handcuffed by the misnamed Voter Protection Act, which was narrowly adopted – where else, at the ballot box – in 1998 via Proposition 105.

The Voter Protection Act says that the Legislature or the governor can’t alter a voter-approved measure unless the Legislature can secure an affirmative vote of three-fourths of the body, and even then, the Legislature’s action has to further the original intent of the proposition. Good luck with that.

So, if you’re wondering why the Legislature hasn’t amended Proposition 206 to help care providers to the disabled who contract their services to the state, or to help schools that have had to overhaul their budgets, it’s because state law doesn’t allow it.

State Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita for years has been calling for Voter Protection Act reform. Her good ideas include requiring a disclaimer to be printed on Arizona ballots stating that voter-approved measures cannot be changed unless they’re done so in accordance with the Voter Protection Act.

The Voter Protection Act even applies to questions referred to voters by the Legislature, something Rep. Ugenti-Rita also believes needs changing.


Our initiative process needs guardrails

Ambiguous statutes, weak enforcement measures, and no way to fix unintended consequences make for a bad citizen initiative system. But unfortunately, that’s what Arizona has.

Rep. Vince Leach has introduced legislation that would make much needed reforms to the initiative system. The Chamber strongly supports his efforts to increase the integrity and accountability of the initiative process.

His bill, H.B. 2404, would create quality control measures to maintain the purity of the election system when it comes to the initiative and popular referendum process. To start, the bill seeks to ensure that political committees and paid petition circulators understand Arizona election laws and comply with them. That’s not too much to ask.

The bill also calls for a more thorough paid circulator registration system, which includes requiring proof that a petition circulator has not previously violated state election law or committed fraud, forgery or ID theft in any state.

In attempt to mitigate the chaotic petition turn-in process that exists now, where campaigns deliver boxes of petitions to the secretary of state at the last minute, Rep. Leach’s bill develops a system for the submission of petition forms that can be more easily administered by the secretary of state in a timely and transparent fashion.

Finally, the bill clarifies the ability and timeline for individuals to challenge the validity of an initiative and referendum’s petition signatures. This is important. It was the ambiguity over deadlines that was the undoing of the Restaurant Association’s challenge of Proposition 206. Yes, the signatures were obtained improperly, according to the judge, but the challenge to their validity should have been brought within five calendar days, not five business days. This needs to be fixed. Because of the lack of clarity in current law, a proposition passed that never should have been on the ballot in the first place.


Commonsense reforms that deserve bipartisan support

Making sure political committees understand our elections laws, that signature gatherers haven’t been convicted of ID theft, establishing a simpler petition submission process, and clarifying when challenges to an initiative can be brought makes sense if we want to preserve a citizen initiative process that Arizona voters can rely on. These reforms strengthen our initiative process.

It’s also important to remember that these reforms only apply to paid signature gatherers. Want to volunteer to gather signatures for a campaign you believe in? Have at it. The citizen initiative process that is part of Arizona’s DNA and dates back to statehood will remain alive and well.

Rep. Ugenti-Rita and Rep. Leach have identified areas of our elections system that need fixing. They deserve their colleagues’ support. We’ve already seen the damage a poorly constructed initiative system can inflict on Arizona. Let’s act before it’s too late.


Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.