Progressives have scored recent victories at the ballot box in Arizona, like a $12-an-hour minimum wage and a paid leave measure in 2016. And years ago, voters established an independent redistricting commission, which Republicans unsuccessfully fought in court in their quest to gerrymander the state. Unhappy that they can’t defeat progressive reforms when they’re on the ballot, Republican legislators are now mulling using their unified control over state government to impose new restrictions on the initiative and referendum process itself.
One proposal would ban campaigns from paying petition circulators on a per-signature basis, forcing them to pay them by the hour or rely on volunteers. Such a change could make it far more expensive for campaigns to obtain the voter signatures needed to put measures on the ballot because it could kill the incentive for circulators to gather as many signatures as possible.
Republicans claim that this proposal is an attempt to eliminate fraud, but the state already checks signatures for validity when campaigns submit them. And of course, Republicans don’t propose to ban paying circulators per signature when candidates themselves seek to qualify for the ballot, demonstrating just how nonsensical their justification is of supposedly preventing fraud.
Another bill would impose an even more onerous requirement that campaigns gather signatures in all 30 state legislative districts, amounting to 10 percent of the votes cast for governor in each district. This hurdle would make it particularly burdensome for progressive groups to acquire enough signatures in a timely manner because they’d have to target staunchly Republican districts, and canvassing in sparsely populated rural areas would be particularly time-consuming and costly.
For instance, the state’s 5th Legislative District, which stretches almost 300 miles from the Utah border to just north of Yuma (and voted for Trump 73-22), is 533 times the area of the 30th District in downtown Phoenix (which backed Clinton 62-32). Canvassers would have to search far and wide for Democrats in a district like the 5th, and such an arduous task would be even more challenging if organizers end up having to rely on volunteers.
A House committee has already approved both of these changes, but there’s more afoot. Arizona has a constitutional amendment on the books called the Voter Protection Act that currently prohibits the legislature from altering voter-approved laws in ways that undermine the statute’s intent. The GOP-controlled state House wants to do away with that provision. They have already voted strictly along party lines to refer a ballot amendment to the voters that would repeal the law and allow legislators to easily overturn the will of the voters if they use referendums to veto a law.
When Republicans can’t gerrymander or suppress voters to guarantee victory, placing new restrictions on the ballot initiative process is a logical next step for those seeking to thwart democracy.