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Az GOP activists fuming about canceled precinct elections, but issue began in 2019

A perfect storm of pandemic-induced delays in the census, unintended consequences from multiple years’ worth of legislation and an unconventional legal interpretation by the secretary of state created a problem with candidate signature requirements that triggered a change to the law that has enraged the GOP’s activist base. 

In order to qualify for the ballot in the primary election, candidates must collect a minimum number of signatures on their nominating petitions. For congressional and legislative candidates, those numbers are based on voter registration numbers in their districts. State law requires the secretary of state to base those signature requirements on voter registration numbers as of Jan. 2 in the election year, which was before the new districts drawn by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission went into effect.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs used the old districts, but applied the numbers to the new districts with the same district numbers as the old ones. That created what many viewed as an unfair situation where candidates’ signature requirements were based on parts of the state that were nowhere near where they live — and on voter registration numbers that may be dramatically different than in the districts where they’re running.

Lawmakers unanimously passed a bipartisan bill last week to create alternative signature requirements as a remedy to the problem. 

The bill included a separate provision that eliminated elections in 2022 for precinct committeemen, the elected, voting members of political parties legislative district-level organizations. Republican legislators have been fixated on reversing the law ever since after an outpouring of anger from their own PCs.

This wasn’t an issue in previous redistricting years, as some lawmakers have noted this week. Why is it in 2022? There are several reasons.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the 2020 Census, which meant that population data the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, counties and others rely on came in later than in previous decades. 

But even before that, the legislature made a change that helped set in motion the chain of events that led to angry PCs berating Republican lawmakers in committee hearings and on social media. 

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In 2019, the legislature approved a law moving the primary election date from the last Tuesday in August to the first Tuesday of the month. That necessitated moving other deadlines. The deadline for candidates to submit their nominating petitions moved from late May to early April. And the date that the secretary of state must use to calculate signature requirements each election year moved from March 1 to Jan. 2.

Both before and after that change was made, state law included an exception for redistricting years. If the new districts weren’t in effect as of that date, the secretary of state would use voter registration data from the day they were officially implemented. This year, that was on Jan. 21.

But that safeguard was eliminated last year. In 2021, the legislature passed a bill permitting legislative and congressional candidates to collect nominating petition signatures in either their old districts from 2012-20 or the new districts that go into effect for the 2022 election. The legislature passes the same bill every 10 years to allow candidates to collect signatures before the new districts are in place.

Tucked into that bill was a provision eliminating the safe harbor provision that allows the secretary of state to use the effective date of the new districts to calculate signature requirements. Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who sponsored the bill, explained on the Senate floor that the proposal came from the Secretary of State’s Office.

Had the legislature not moved up the primary election, and with it moved up the signature filing period and the date used to calculate the requirements, it wouldn’t have mattered this year. But with no legal option to use a later date to determine signature requirements, Hobbs was forced to use data based on the old districts as of Jan. 2.

The signature requirements then came down to how Hobbs interpreted the law. In a letter to the legislature, she said she had three options — have candidates collect signatures for their new districts based on the old ones where they live, use signature requirements from the old districts that have the same district numbers as the new one, or allow candidates to use either. 

Because the new districts cross the boundaries of the old ones, the first scenario and third would create a situation in which two candidates in the same 2022 district would have different signature requirements because they lived in different districts under the old map. 

Hobbs opted for the second solution, using old districts’ requirements that correspond to the new district numbers, which are assigned arbitrarily by the AIRC. That created a situation where Republican candidates running in overwhelmingly Democratic areas, or vice versa, needed disproportionately high numbers of signatures because the old district with the same number was dominated by their party. 

The legislature’s solution was to create alternate signature requirements based on a per-district average for each political party. Candidates can use the lower number between that and the requirement set by the Secretary of State’s Office. Because lawmakers needed to implement the new law immediately for the imminent start of the candidate filing period, they passed the bill with an emergency clause. 

Now they need an emergency clause to undo the change they unwittingly made to the PC elections. Democrats, who are not under the same kind of pressure as their Republican colleagues, have thus far been uncooperative.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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