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Arizona Supreme Court rejects bid by groups to gather initiative petition signatures online

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 5/13/2020 Andrew Oxford, Arizona Republic

The Arizona Supreme Court will not let initiative campaigns collect signatures online to qualify for the ballot in November, a move several campaigns had urged as a public health precaution as the coronavirus pandemic upended the usual practices of circulating petitions in public places or door-to-door.

In a 6-1 decision, the court rejected a request by four ballot measure campaigns to use the same website, known as E-Qual, that candidates for state offices use to get signatures for their nominating petitions.

Only Vice Chief Justice Ann Scott Timmer voted in favor of the campaigns, which said that some of their proposed ballot measures could be doomed if they are unable to gather signatures in person due to the pandemic.

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The groups said this would deprive Arizonans of their ability to use the state’s system of direct democracy and the initiative process.

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Initiatives to change statute need at least 237,645 signatures to qualify for the ballot. But many of the public places where campaigns have usually gathered signatures, such as outside libraries or on college campuses, have emptied amid public health precautions.

Without the option of collecting signatures online, one of the ballot measure campaigns behind the lawsuit, Save Our Schools Arizona, immediately announced it would stop gathering signatures.

The group is backing an initiative to put new limits on the state's school voucher program. It had reported collecting about 50,000 signatures by early April.

“It would not have been difficult for the court to grant voters both safety and their constitutional rights, but today, they refused to do that despite the immediate availability of the E-Qual online signature collection system and the ongoing rise of coronavirus cases and deaths across Arizona,” the Save Our Schools campaign said in a statement.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich opposed the lawsuit, arguing that the state Constitution says initiative petitions must be signed in the presence of the person circulating the petition. That means voters cannot sign petitions for initiatives online, he maintained.

“A health crisis is not an excuse to ignore the constitution,” Brnovich said in a statement Wednesday.

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The attorney general argued initiative campaigns could have started collecting signatures much earlier, well before the coronavirus upended daily life.

Save Our Schools Arizona was joined in the lawsuit by a campaign to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, Smart and Safe Arizona. That campaign said it already has enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in November.

Also included in the lawsuit were a campaign for changes to criminal sentencing laws, Arizonans for Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety, and Invest in Education, a ballot measure that seeks to raise nearly $1 billion for education by taxing the state's wealthiest residents.

Two ballot measure campaigns filed a similar, unsuccessful lawsuit in federal court.

One of those groups, Arizonans for Fair Elections, also said Wednesday it would suspend its campaign, citing the state Supreme Court decision. Its proposed initiative called for automatic voter registration and tougher lobbying laws.

The cases have unfolded amid a years-long battle over direct democracy in Arizona.

Foiled by Republican majorities at the Legislature, Democrats have used the ballot box to push priorities such as raising the minimum wage. In turn, Republican lawmakers have sought to make it harder to put measures on the ballot.

The lawsuits also illustrate just one of several ways the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to upend the general election in November.

In-person candidate forums have been replaced with virtual debates ahead of the primary in August. Many local officials are encouraging voters to sign up to receive ballots by mail.

Maricopa County officials are planning to open 75 to 100 vote centers and allowing voters to cast ballots at any location, rather than opening about 500 polling places, most of which would be limited to voters in the surrounding precincts. The board of supervisors is expected to vote on that plan in June.

Contact Andrew Oxford at andrew.oxford@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Supreme Court rejects bid by groups to gather initiative petition signatures online

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