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Arizona candidates won’t be able to collect online signatures in their new districts at all in 2022

Legislative and congressional candidates won’t be able to use Arizona’s online system to collect the signatures they need to get their names on the ballot if they file to run using their new district numbers at all this year.

That’s what Secretary of State Katie Hobbs told them in new guidance that wasn’t among the instructions she issued just two weeks ago to candidates.

Candidates who want to collect signatures through the state’s online portal, E-Qual, must register using their old districts, not the new ones approved last month by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. The Secretary of State’s Office is now warning candidates that signatures they collect under their new districts may be invalid.

Hobbs does not expect E-Qual to be updated with voter registration data for the new districts until after the April 4 deadline for candidates to submit their nominating petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office, according to the guidance her office issued on Tuesday. And once county election officials begin updating their voter registration information to reflect the new districts, E-Qual will go offline entirely and won’t be available again before the filing deadline hits. The office expects the system to go offline around March 5.

The new instructions are notably different from guidance the secretary of state issued on Dec. 29, about a week after the commission approved the new districts, as well as information Hobbs’s office provided to the Arizona Mirror several days later. Some candidates who had filed to run in their new districts unexpectedly found that they couldn’t collect online signatures there. The office previously said candidates would be able to collect online signatures in their new districts prior to the April 4 deadline, though it wouldn’t be available in some counties, likely including Maricopa, until March. 

Now, the Secretary of State’s Office says candidates will have to use old-fashioned paper petitions to collect signatures in their new districts. They can still collect signatures on E-Qual, as long as they’re registered under their old district numbers. A “safe harbor” law the legislature passed last year allows candidates in the 2022 election cycle to collect signatures in both their old and new districts to help them navigate the redistricting process. 

Because the AIRC has not yet transmitted the new maps to the secretary of state and the state’s 15 counties haven’t been able to update their voter registration data accordingly, E-Qual does not yet allow candidates to collect signatures or qualifying contributions for Clean Elections funding under their new districts. For example, legislative candidates who file to run in the new District 30, which covers Mohave and La Paz counties, would only be able to collect online signatures in the old district with that number, which is in Phoenix.

More than three dozen candidates have filed statements of interest to run for legislative or congressional seats since the original guidance came out from the Secretary of State’s Office, with many filing under the new districts. The office says anyone who filed with their new district numbers should switch to the old one if they want to use E-Qual, and any candidates who file to run after the AIRC’s approval of the new maps should still file under their old district number. 

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Candidates will not be able to collect online signatures from voters in their new districts at any point this year. 

Several candidates who filed under their new districts have already switched back to the old ones. 

The Secretary of State’s Office initially planned for candidates to continue collecting signatures on E-Qual while counties update their precinct lines for the new maps. But the office reassessed and concluded it was better to take the system offline.

“Once the first county begins importing the maps into the voter registration system, E-Qual will be shut down for congressional and legislative candidates to prevent any confusion for voters and candidates,” Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman for Hobbs, told the Mirror

Hebert said the Secretary of State’s Office wasn’t unprepared, and that the scenarios it now faces were considered ahead of time. She noted that the office released its new guidance well before the new maps are certified. Hebert also said candidates were advised in the December guidance not to update their campaigns yet with their new districts in E-Qual.

“The notion that this is happening late in the game is a bit disingenuous. From Day One, the office has always been responsive to feedback. Based on the feedback we received, we made the decision to update the plan,” Hebert said. “We’re trying to implement the best approach that gives both candidates and voters access, with the alternative being the system going offline entirely.”

The office has also reassessed its original interpretation of the safe harbor law, under which candidates could not only collect signatures from both their old and new districts, but also in the old district that bears the same number as their new one. A candidate in the new District 10, which is based east Mesa, for example, would have been able to collect signatures online from voters in the old District 10, in Tucson, under that scenario. 

Hobbs’ office no longer believes such signatures would be valid, Hebert said. 

The issue with E-Qual being unable to accommodate two sets of districts is a technical one, Hebert said. The system simply does not permit for two maps to be used simultaneously.

“To clarify, the system is not broken — it does not provide an option that would accommodate holding these two maps at the same time,” she said.

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Clean Elections candidates face a legal dispute, uncertainty

For Clean Elections candidates who use E-Qual to collect the qualifying contributions they need to get their public campaign funding, there’s an additional issue. 

Under the Clean Elections systems, candidates forgo most private fundraising and instead collect a minimum number of $5 qualifying contributions. Like petition signatures, candidates can only collect contributions from voters who are eligible to vote for them, which, for legislative candidates, means voters in their districts. Once they collect enough of those contributions, they submit them to the Secretary of State’s Office and receive a lump sum of public funding for their primary election campaign. Those who win their primary receive a second lump sum for the general election. 

The safe harbor law doesn’t explicitly state that it applies to Clean Elections. But Sen. J.D. Mesnard, who sponsored both the 2021 bill and its 2011 predecessor, said his intention was for the law to allow Clean Elections candidates to collect those qualifying contributions in either their old or new districts. Elections attorney Jim Barton and Clean Elections Commission Executive Director Tom Collins, who both represented the commission as lawyers with the Attorney General’s Office in 2012, said the previous version of law applied to qualifying contributions. 

Because the Clean Elections Act, which created the system, does not have its own definition of what constitutes a district, it uses whatever definition exists elsewhere in election law, Collins said. For the 2012 election cycle, that meant both old and new districts. 

However, the Secretary of State’s Office under Hobbs disagrees that the safe harbor law allows candidates to collect qualifying contributions from both districts throughout the election cycle. Hobbs’ interpretation is that candidates can only collect them from voters in the district which they’re registered under at the time, with or without E-Qual. 

Hebert said the system is expected to be down for about a month, and back online around April 4, though the exact timeframe will depend on how long it takes the counties to update their information for the new districts. 

Once that process is complete and E-Qual is accessible again, it won’t matter for most candidates because the deadline for nominating petitions will have already passed. But Clean Elections will still be able to use the system, as they can qualify for funding until shortly before the Aug. 2 primary election.

But candidates began collecting qualifying contributions in August and have had the ability to submit them to qualify for Clean Elections funding since the start of this month. Collins was dismayed that the system will be unavailable during the qualifying period, and was caught off guard upon learning of the pending shutdown. 

“Surprised is probably a little bit of an understatement,” Collins said. “This is unexpected. And I hope that the secretary’s office provides an explanation to voters, candidates. I think that would be a helpful thing to have happen.”

Collins said the system is important not only to candidates who rely on the qualifying contributions for funding, but for voters as well.

“To look at this from a candidate perspective exclusively is a little bit shy of the mark. Voters had this opportunity to participate in the Clean Elections process made available to them at the beginning of August,” he said.

Hebert said the Secretary of State’s Office and Collins in December discussed the possibility that Clean Elections candidates may not be able to use E-Qual to collect qualifying contributions depending on the timing of when the new maps were certified.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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