Election bills to make real difference

Michele Reagan improving electionsBy Robert Robb, columnist
The Republic | azcentral.com


The 2012 election in Arizona was unsatisfactory to pretty much everyone. Not so much because of the results, which of course pleased some and disappointed others. But because of the process — last-minute lawsuits, large sums of anonymous campaign expenditures, the slow process of counting votes.

As a result, there are an unusually large number of election-law changes working their way through the Legislature this session. Only two are really important.

SCR1006, championed by Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, would move the deadline for filing initiative petitions up from four months to six months before the general election.

State law sets rules for initiative petitions to follow to get to the ballot. If the state is going to have such rules, initiative campaigns should have to follow them. Right now, there’s not enough time between when initiative-petition signatures are filed and general-election ballots are printed to ensure that they have.

Arizona doesn’t try to actually verify the signatures on petitions anymore. Whether an initiative qualifies relies solely on a random sample. And even that doesn’t get done until uncomfortably close to when general-election ballots need to be printed.

In 2012, there was a serious question as to whether the top-two primary initiative had sufficient signatures due to problems with its paid circulators. The courts ran out of time to seriously consider the matter.

That was one of two legal contests involving that initiative. The education sales-tax initiative spawned three lawsuits.

The courts make these decisions on the fly without the kind of deliberation they merit. And it shows. The state Supreme Court often makes a hash of its hasty decisions just before election deadlines, sowing the seeds of future litigation.

A couple of extra months would do the process considerable good.

Democrats in the Senate wanted to reduce the number of signatures required to qualify if the time to file was moved up. But the proposed reduction wouldn’t have restored initiatives to being a grass-roots tool. Qualifying an initiative would still require big bucks. And campaigns with big bucks can organize to file in May rather than July.

HB2593, championed by Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, would substantially increase what individuals and political action committees can give to candidates.

Arizona has very low limits: $440 to a legislative candidate, $912 to a statewide candidate, and $6,390 to all candidates in an election cycle. And that’s for both the primary and general elections. HB2593 would increase that to $2,000 per candidate per election, with no aggregate limit.

Some would like to put the big-dollar independent-expenditure genie back in the bottle. That’s not going to happen.

But substantially increasing contribution limits would enable candidates to make their own voices heard in their elections, rather than principally being bystanders, as many were in 2012.

Opponents say that publicly financed candidates should receive a bump, as well. I’d like to see that, in theory. But it’s not going to get an audience in this Legislature.

Nor is it particularly important anymore.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the matching-funds provision, in which publicly financed candidates could get additional money if outspent by a privately financed opponent, public financing has become the refuge of very safe incumbents and long-shot challengers. With few exceptions, serious candidates in contested races will raise their money from contributors.

There are a lot of other election bills running around, many of which are getting more attention than these two.

But none would be as beneficial or consequential as giving county recorders and courts a little more time to do their jobs regarding initiatives and giving candidates more of a chance of competing with independent expenditure campaigns for the attention of voters.