Bill would allow Arizona attorney general to change words on ballot measures
Ryan Randazzo, Arizona Republic
The Arizona attorney general would have the ability to modify descriptions of measures on the ballot under a bill that could soon win approval from the Arizona Legislature.
Supporters say the change helps clarify the attorney general’s role, while opponents — mainly progressives — fear it would lead to biased descriptions that could sink statewide proposals.
Senate Bill 1451 from Vince Leach, R-Tucson, would add a variety of requirements for people who collect signatures to place a measure on the ballot.
Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, has proposed amending the bill to allow the Attorney General to accept, reject or modify the short descriptions of such measures that appears on ballots.
The amendment was circulated among House lawmakers on Tuesday. The bill already passed the Senateand could receive another vote soon.
“The AG could stop any initiatives they didn’t like by adding biased language,” said Josselyn Berry, co-director of Progress Now Arizona. “It’s super political and shortsighted.”
Petersen said he offered the amendment as a “technical correction” at the request of Leach.
“It clarifies what is already existing practice,” Petersen said. “I was surprised to see the opposition. I don’t think it made a substantive change.”
Clean-energy measure was edited
Berry cited the dispute over Proposition 127 last year, a clean-energy measure that went before voters.
The Attorney General’s Office added language to the ballot question over Prop. 127 that said utilities would need to meet the clean-energy requirements “irrespective of cost.” It also mentioned that power from nuclear plants would not count toward the renewable requirements.
Prop. 127 opponents used those exact words in ads against the measure, while supporters hammered Attorney General Mark Brnovich over the changes.
Supporters of the clean-energy measure, which lost in a landslide, suggested the edits to the description of the bill were meant to discourage votes for the measure.
While the Attorney General’s Office’s actions last year seem to indicate such edits to ballot descriptions are lawful, the amendment would codify such editing in law and allow it without limits, Berry said.
“That is a lot of power for a Republican or a Democrat lawmaker,” Berry said.
The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry is a proponent of both the bill and the amendment from Petersen.
“We think it codifies really what is understood to be current practice,” said Garrick Taylor, senior vice president of government relations for the chamber.
“This gives the statute even greater clarity. No one believes that the attorney general” doesn’t have a role in what language appears on the ballot, he said.
Prop. 127 among reasons for bill
Leach said during a February committee hearing on his bill that Prop. 127 was among the reasons the ballot-initiative process needs changes.
He said he attended a court hearing where signatures gathered to put that measure on the ballot were challenged by opponents who “went through that painstakingly, boxes and boxes and boxes of signatures,” that were being questioned.
Prop. 127 opponents were concerned that many of the signatures were invalid and the sheer volume of signatures overwhelmed the secretary of state’s office.
Leach said lawmakers have a duty to ensure items placed on the ballot are well vetted.
“The ballot is the vehicle for the most precious thing that we have in our country, and that is our vote,” he said.
Berry and other progressives didn’t like Leach’s bill to start with.
Other changes the bill would make
To place a measure on a ballot, supporters must gather signatures from a certain number of registered voters.
Under the proposal, Arizona would create a registration system for people who are paid to collect signatures to get an item on the ballot and introduce a variety of requirements for signatures to be determined as valid, including that they be grouped together by the person who gathered them.
It also would prevent some people with criminal histories, including of fraud or forgery, from gathering signatures.
Knowingly omitting or misrepresenting information, or providing false information on a circulator registration application, would be a class 1 misdemeanor, one step below a felony.
“SB1451 would increase the difficulty and cost of placing an initiative on the ballot, making it impossible for average citizens to have their voices heard,” Berry said.
Taylor said the bill’s intent on keeping people convicted of crimes from working to place items on the ballot is seeking things that are “well within the mainstream.”
“The bill in general reflects a desire that we believe the initiative process should be a rigorous one,” Taylor said. “After all, it is law making, and with extremely high stakes.”