Rejecting pleas to let voters have the last word, a Republican-dominated House panel took the first steps Thursday to kill a referendum drive to force a public vote on changes to state election laws.
HB 2196, approved by the Judiciary Committee on a 4-2 margin, repeals last year's far-reaching package of changes in election laws pushed through originally by the Republicans. Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said his legislation does exactly what foes of that law sought when they gathered enough signatures to hold up the changes until voters got a chance to repeal them.
But the concern of Democrats is HB 2196 may not be the end of it.
Farnsworth admitted he could not guarantee that some of his colleagues would not turn around and simply reenact one or more those same provisions this year. In fact, Farnsworth said he believes some changes are needed in laws on early ballots.
Doing that, however, would force foes to start all over again with one — or more — new petition drives, depending on the number of different bills approved reenacting the disputed provisions.
Thursday's party-line vote left Democrats on the Judiciary Committee angry over what they see as an end-run of voters. But they control only 24 of the 60 House seats and 13 of 30 Senate seats, and that means they need Republican support to keep the Legislature from simply reenacting much — if not all — of what the referendum sought to block.
There are signs that could happen.
At Thursday's hearing, Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, voted for HB 2196 to repeal last year's law and undo the referendum. Orr told Capitol Media Services he would not vote to reinstate any of what was repealed, and he promised to try to find other Republicans who are willing to vote the same way.
Orr conceded, though, he represents a “split” district in which there are enough voters of either party to allow election of a Democrat or Republican. That's different than many Republicans who are in “safe” districts where the chances of a Democrat ousting a Republican are slim to none.
The fight is over last year's measure enacting a series of changes in election laws, including:
- Limiting who can take someone's early ballot to a polling place.
- Setting up procedures to stop sending early ballots to voters who have not used them.
- Imposing stricter requirements on citizen groups sponsoring initiatives.
- Sharply boosting signature requirements for minor parties to get their legislative and congressional candidates on the ballot.
Opponents got more than 140,000 signatures on petitions, more than enough to block enforcement until voters could decide whether to ratify or reject the plan.
Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, said the problem with the referendum is that it became an all-or-nothing proposal. He said it may be that some who signed the petitions dislike only some of the provisions, and Pierce said undoing the referendum puts the issue back “in the hands of the people that are elected to be the will of the voters and to identify what the voters do want.”
But Rep. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said petition organizers could have referred only some sections of last year's law to the ballot.
“They chose not to do that,” he said.
“They chose to refer the entire thing,” Quezada continued. “So the signatures they collected were statements that they want to vote on the entire bill, not parts of it.”
He said if there were people who liked some of what was in last year's law they could have chosen not to sign the petitions.
Democrats are not the only ones who opposed last year's measure and now want to keep the referendum on the ballot. They also have support from members of the Libertarian and Green parties who would have to get far more signatures to get their own legislative and congressional candidates on the ballot.
They contend the move amounts to little more than crass political opportunism by Republicans to finesse election laws to keep out candidates who may be siphoning off GOP votes.
That conclusion is not without merit. In fact, Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, trying to line up votes for the measure last year, publicly admitted one goal was to create an easier path for Republican candidates.
Mesnard told Republican colleagues people try to “manipulate the outcome of elections by putting third-party candidates on the ballot.”
“All they have to do right now is get a dozen or 15 signatures, and on the ballot they go,” Mesnard said. He claimed that at least one 2012 congressional race — and maybe two — would have gone to Republicans had this law been in place last year.
In CD 1, Republican Jonathan Paton fell short in his bid to oust incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick. Paton garnered 113,594 votes against 122,774 for Kirkpatrick.
But Libertarian Kim Allen picked up 15,227 votes — votes Mesnard contended likely would have gone to Paton to help him win.
Similarly, in the newly created CD 9, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema bested Republican Vernon Parker by 10,251 votes, with Libertarian Powell Gammill tallying 16,620.