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Hobbs will shut down, update Az online election petitions after judge denies GOP court move

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs will temporarily shut down Arizona's online signature-gathering portal for candidates next month, despite a judge's refusal to preemptively block Attorney General Mark Brnovich from taking legal action against her for it.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joan Sinclair ruled on Thursday that a preliminary injunction — blocking Brnovich from taking any action — would be inappropriate because it is unknown whether the AG would exceed his legal authority by taking Hobbs to court, or whether the Attorney General's Office will even do so at all. Until those things happen, there's no reason for the court to act, she wrote.

"If the Secretary goes forward with her plan and takes EQual (sic) offline, the AG may or may not file any civil or criminal complaint against her. If she takes her planned action, and he responds with a civil or criminal complaint, then the matter would be ripe for adjudication," Sinclair wrote in a minute entry.

The heart of the dispute lies in Hobbs' plan to shut down E-Qual in early March so counties can update their voter registration databases to reflect the new congressional and legislative district boundaries approved by the Arizona Independent Redistricting System. Candidates for state and federal offices can collect the signatures they need to qualify for the ballot either on traditional paper petitions or online through E-Qual. The shutdown will only affect legislative and congressional candidates, who can only collect signatures from voters who live in the districts where they're running.

The Secretary of State's Office says there's no way to update the system without taking it offline, which will occur during the last month before the April 4 deadline for candidates to file their nominating petitions.

Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Wright, who runs Brnovich's election integrity division, wrote a letter to Bo Dul, the general counsel for the secretary of state, alleging that it would be illegal to shut down E-Qual. Furthermore, Wright said that failing to provide that online portal to candidates as required by state law could be a class 3 misdemeanor or a class 6 felony.

Hobbs responded by suing Brnovich and asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction to stop the attorney general from taking legal action against her over E-Qual.

"We are pleased with today's ruling because Arizona's laws are not merely suggestions. Now more than ever, we need our election officials to avoid playing political games. Everyone deserves to have confidence in our electoral process," Brnovich said in a statement provided to the Arizona Mirror.

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Despite the judge's refusal to grant the injunction, Hobbs will move forward with her plan to take E-Qual offline. Spokeswoman Murphy Hebert said the office will shut down E-Qual on March 11, rather than the earlier target date of March 5, because that's when county election officials have said they plan to begin updating their systems for redistricting.

Hebert noted that Sinclair wrote in her ruling that courts often defer to "an agency's interpretation and application of statutes that it implements," and told the Mirror that Hobbs "will continue to do that."

Whether Brnovich will take legal action remains to be seen. Katie Conner, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, declined to say directly whether that will happen, pointing instead to Wright's letter to Dul. Among other things, the letter states that the attorney general "is required to enforce the provisions of Title 16 through civil and criminal actions in any election for members of the legislature..

The dispute over E-Qual is the latest chapter in the long-running feud between Brnovich and Hobbs. Brnovich is currently seeking the Republican nomination in this year's race for U.S. Senate, while Hobbs is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for governor.

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Mark Brnovich photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror, Katie Hobbs photo by Gage Skidmore (modified) | Wikimedia Commons