A new bill to eliminate the option for Initiative proponents to pay-per-signature appears to be sailing through the legislature and is likely to become law without much debate. This bill, however, is a mistake. Billed as legislation to protect Arizona voters from “forgery and fraud” in the initiative process, this legislation would do little, if anything, to deter such despicable acts. In fact, the only thing this legislation would likely do is raise the cost of a petition drive and therefore, make it more difficult for citizens to petition their government.
However, there are a few things that the state government can do to safeguard against foul play by petition circulators and also to promote volunteer signature gathering. The first, allow proponents to have access to a qualified voter file. In most, possibly all, other states where there is a citizen induced initiative process proponents can purchase a voter file for as little as a couple hundred dollars. In Arizona, in order for proponents to purchase just the Maricopa County file they would have to pay over $150,000. That’s not a typo – it is over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. This file allows proponents to check the validity of the signature as circulators submit the signatures. If a circulator has a low validity rate the circulator can undergo more training or the proponent can choose not to purchase signatures from that circulator any longer.
Arizona government officials argue that it’s a matter of privacy – but if that’s the case then why put a price on it at all? And beyond that, all of this information is available to anyone who chooses to sit at the county election offices and look the information up on the county computer terminals.
You may ask, why then, wouldn’t proponents just use the computer terminals provided by the County Election Department and verify signatures against the qualified voter file? The fact is, proponents do have someone randomly verify some signatures at the elections office. However, the computer system at the Elections office is primitive, differs from county to county, and time is limited to normal business hours. If a file was made available to proponents (and opponents to check against once the signatures are submitted) then proponents could check signatures in batches after hours. And most proponents have access to much better search tools. This is important because we must remember that petitions often are not signed in the best of conditions, for instance signing a petition on a street corner with a piece of cardboard used as a hard surface. Proponents have access to search technology that allows for wildcard searches so that, for instance, if only 3 numbers of a street address are legible wildcards can be placed in the other 2 numbers and a search can be performed (i.e. 12345 could be searched as 1*23*5 or Jan could be searched as J*n). The county election offices do not allow such searches.
The second thing that can be done by the legislature to prevent against “forgery and fraud” is to put restrictions on “transcribers.” This would be a reasonable step that would allow proponents – and the Secretary of State – to validate signatures. Right now, in Arizona, circulators often carry multiple issue-petitions at one time – and the circulator only has the signer fill in all of the information required on the first petition and then sign the remaining petitions. Someone else, a transcriber, then goes through and transcribes the information from one petition to the rest. This makes it near impossible for any proponent to look at the petitions and see if any circulator is engaging in foul play. Signers should have to fill in “most” of the information themselves – circulators and/or office staff should be able to clarify signer information (like zip codes or making a street address more legible – they should never be able to do anything to the actual signature), but should not be able to fill in all information other than the signature.
Oftentimes, Initiative proponents hear elected officials say that circulation should only be done by volunteers. “If an issue is important enough that the people want to place it on the ballot, then you shouldn’t have to pay to have signatures collected,” is a statement proponents hear often. If that’s the case then elected officials and lobbyists should all be volunteers and should not be paid for their work. Beyond that if the state of Arizona wants more signatures to be collected by volunteers there are a few things that can be done to help facilitate this. For instance, the petition form is not volunteer friendly – a petition circulator (whether volunteer or paid) has to have each form notarized that’s an added step that most volunteers don’t have the time or money for (I think it’s interesting to note that candidate petitions do not have to be notarized). Petition forms currently cannot be printed by volunteers at home because margins need to be exact and the petition has to be on legal sized paper that makes it more difficult for volunteers.
Limiting petitioning is a slippery slope – and voters should take notice. Make no mistake this proposed legislation is a step to limit the petition process. Most often when the legislature decides to put restrictions on the petitioning process it is because the legislature doesn’t like it when the people interfere with what the legislature considers their business. Voters should also notice that this new legislation only deals with petitions for initiatives and referenda and not candidate petitions. Even with this new legislation, candidates are free to continue to pay-per-signature. Candidate petitions often have fewer requirements and fewer restrictions – one can only speculate as to why that is the case.