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Arizona secretary of state urges judge to halt AG prosecution threat over election system maintenance

An attorney for Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs urged a judge Wednesday to stop state Attorney General Mark Brnovich from pursuing a criminal action against her for planning to take a candidate signature-gathering system offline for maintenance.

Hobbs, a Democrat, sued Brnovich this month in Maricopa County Superior Court to stop him from pursuing her criminally while her office performs maintenance on Arizona's “E-qual” website. According to the lawsuit, she will "suffer irreparable harm from these threats of unlawful criminal prosecution that could affect her livelihood.”

The injunction could help protect "private personal and property rights" amid a legal battle, according to the suit.

Hobbs claims her office needs to temporarily pull the site offline to remap districts ahead of county elections. The remapping would align voters with newly drawn congressional and legislative districts, but the shutdown would happen a month before the April 4 deadline for candidates to finalize their petitions.

Brnovich's office claimed in court Wednesday that the remapping is a significant strain to candidates moving towards requirements to appear on election ballots.

"The secretary uses words like temporarily or for a limited time. It's not a temporary shutdown; we're talking about four weeks here," said Deputy Solicitor General Michael Catlett. "And it's not just any period of time; it's the last four weeks in the period when candidates are fervently trying to gather signatures so that they can appear on the ballot."

Hobbs, who is running for Arizona governor, is a front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Her attorney suggested that Brnovich, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied for Mark Kelly, was not qualified to understand the secretary's position.

"If Attorney General Brnovich wishes to operate and administer elections, perhaps instead of running for the U.S. Senate, he should run to be the county recorder," said Roopali Desai of Coppersmith Brockelman. "He does not understand county elections administration. He does not understand how E-qual works."

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Desai argued that if the state does not update the system ahead of some county elections, it could open up litigation against the elections clerks in those counties for accepting signatures in invalid districts.

Catlett disagreed.

"The Legislature passed a statute supported by the secretary last year that allows them to obtain signatures from folks either in the old legislative congressional district or the new congressional legislative district," Catlett said. "There's no dispute by anyone that the current system as it's currently running is somehow inconsistent with the law."

Catlett acknowledged county recorders would have to manually scrub signatures to ensure they migrate to their correct districts. He stopped short of saying that was a burden too significant for the recorders to bear.

"The fact that they're just going to have too much work to do is based on sheer speculation," Catlett said.

Despite Catlett's claims, both Coconino County and Yavapai County recorders signed declarations in the suit claiming the burden would be too great for them as they transition to primaries in August.

Judge Joan Sinclair did not issue a ruling in court but recognized the fast-approaching March shutdown deadline.

"I'm going to be taking this under advisement, and I will issue my ruling as soon as I possibly can," Sinclair said. "I know time is of the essence here."

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Katie Hobbs for Governor

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat running to replace GOP Gov. David Ducey.