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After 4 years, Az secretary of state opens online petitions to local candidates

Most 2020 candidates are already past the deadline for collecting the signatures they need to run in the August primary election, but those who are seeking a handful of nonpartisan municipal offices that won't be on the ballot until November will now be able to collect their signatures online.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs announced Monday that her office had completed its expansion of the E-Qual system, which allows candidates to collect signatures for their nominating petitions online. After a member of the legislature complained about a years-long delay in the project, Hobbs's office initially said it would be completed by the middle of 2021, but shifted gears shortly afterward and expanded the system in just a few weeks.

The expansion comes too late for most candidates who are running for office in 2020. The deadline for candidates who are running in the August primary election, which includes all county-level candidates and many municipal offices, was on April 6. But candidates in three cities who still have two months to collect signatures will be able to do so online, eliminating the need to circulate their petitions in person while social distancing recommendations are in effect to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The expansion of E-Qual has been four years in the making. Lawmakers voted in 2016 to expand the system to county, municipal and precinct committeeman officers. But former Secretary of State Michele Reagan, who left office in January 2019, didn't move to upgrade E-Qual, prioritizing other projects instead. And Hobbs said she couldn't upgrade E-Qual until it finished a new online voter registration system that Reagan had delayed.

Hobbs said she was aware when she became secretary of state that her office was out of compliance with the law on E-Qual. But it wasn't feasible to expand the system until the new voter registration system, known as Access Voter Information Database, or AVID, was completed, which didn't happen until November.

"The functionality there just made the development for this phase of E-Qual much more feasible. So when we looked at it to see if we could fast-track it we realized that we could and … were able to push it out ahead of schedule so that some folks will still be able to take advantage of it this election year," Hobbs said.

Previously, only candidates for statewide, legislative or federal offices could collect signatures online. The expansion opens the system to candidates for municipal or county offices, as well as those who are running to be precinct committeemen, which are elected, voting members of a political party's district-level organization.

Candidates for partisan offices and most municipal offices had to submit their nominating petitions by April 6 to qualify for the August primary ballot. However, some cities will have nonpartisan elections in November, with runoff elections in March, if needed. And candidates will now be able to collect signatures online, as statewide.

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Phoenix, Sierra Vista and Huachuca City have already opted into the system, according to the secretary of state's office. Candidates for those offices have until July 6 to collect signatures.

The secretary of state's office told Arizona Mirror last month that it expected the expansion to be completed by June 2021, so local candidates could use it for the 2022 elections. Hobbs said she decided to move forward several weeks ago after officials from the City of Phoenix reached out to her office. She said the decision was also prompted by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which makes it more difficult to collect signatures in person.

"Obviously, things changed dramatically with COVID-19. So we saw a need to fast-track this project if we could and I'm really happy that we were able to," Hobbs said.

Hobbs's decision to fast-track E-Qual expansion came shortly after she started receiving criticism from the legislature. Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, blasted the secretary of state's office in a press release for not expanding the system before the April 6 deadline. Finchem emphasized to the Mirror that he was criticizing both Hobbs and Reagan.

Cochise County Recorder David Stevens, a former state legislator who sponsored the E-Qual expansion bill in 2016, was glad to see the system online, though it took far longer than he'd hoped.

"I would ask her why it took so long to do something so quick. But I know there's a lot on her plate," Stevens said.

Eligible candidates who are still collecting signatures won't automatically be able to do so through E-Qual. The municipalities or jurisdictions that oversee their elections have to opt into the system first. And candidates for some offices won't be eligible at all. School board candidates have until July 6 to collect signatures for the November ballot. But Hobbs said the online signature law doesn't apply to them.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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Gage Skidmore

Hobbs on Arizona's inauguration day, January 7, 2019.