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Posted Oct 1, 2010, 9:19 am
Karen Osborne and her team at the Maricopa County Elections Department have the arduous task of verifying signatures on petitions before an initiative makes it onto the ballot.
"It's important we get it right," said Osborne, the Maricopa County elections director. "It's a tight time frame, and things tend to come in on top of each other."
On Nov. 2, Arizona voters will decide whether to give county elections officials like Osborne more time to verify signatures.
Proposition 112 would move up the deadline from four to six months before an election for turning in signatures to get citizens' initiatives on the ballot.
Citizens' initiatives are ballot measures suggested by voters that amend a statute or the Arizona Constitution.
Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, who serves as the House Democratic whip, said the current time frame doesn't allow enough time for lawsuits challenging a measure to be heard before ballots are printed.
"The proposition allows more time for an honest debate about the issues, at no cost to the taxpayer," he said.
While it would give elections officials more time to do their work, however, it would take away from from grassroots efforts, said Lynne Weaver, chairwoman of Proposition 13, a property tax reform measure that fell short of making it onto the ballot this election.
She won't give the actual number of signatures her group lacked, but said "it was very close."
But Campbell said it's not about taking away time from the grassroots effort. It's about keeping the focus on the citizenry and not catering to special interests.
Currently, petitions for a ballot initiative are due to the secretary of state four months before the general election. The office determines if there are enough valid signatures for the initiative to be put on the ballot.
In order to amend Arizona's Constitution, initiative petitions are required to have signatures equal to 15 percent of the number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election. For a statute change, the amount is 10 percent. This year, that equaled 230,047 to amend the Constitution and 153,365 to change a statute.
The Secretary of State's Office takes a random sample of the signatures and determines how many are invalid. The total number of petition signatures is multiplied by the percentage of invalid signatures in the sample to determine if there are enough valid signatures to go forward.
If the state determines that there are enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot, it passes on the petitions to the counties for the next phase. County election departments then repeat the process but with a random 5 percent sample of the signatures.
Amy Bjelland, state election director, said her office only gets about 15 days to test its sample and has to take on a team of temporary workers to help with the workload.
"It's painstaking work," she said.
Osborne said more time would benefit Maricopa County, since it receives the bulk of the work. Sixty percent of the state's registered voters reside in Maricopa County.
"Things seems to come in one on top of the other this time of year," Osborne said. "It would give us more time to do our work and not be so strained."
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That would give people like Weaver less time to do their work. Unlike the only citizen's initiative on the ballot this election, which would legalize medical marijuana, Weaver relied solely on volunteers, not paid petition circulation companies.
"Having volunteers is like herding cats," she said. "We depend on them all over the state."
She said her team will try again for the 2012 election but with a mix of volunteers and paid petition circulation employees.
Campbell said Arizona's urbanization over the past 10 years should make it easier for people to collect a sufficient number of signatures. He does not believe Proposition 112 would get in the way of that.
"It's about transparency and accountability," he said. "And I'd side with them any day of the week."