A federal judge refused Monday to ease the requirement for candidates to get on the ballot, at least for this year.
Judge Neil Wake ruled the Arizona Public Integrity Alliance waited too long to challenge the requirement that those seeking statewide office must get nominating petitions signed by people in at least three of the state's 15 counties. He pointed out the lawsuit came just two weeks before petitions had to be filed on May 29.
But Wake's ruling does not mean the Arizona law is, in fact, legal. That decision will have to await a full-blown trial on the issue in the next few months.
That leaves the door open to the court voiding the requirement for the 2016 vote — a move that could minimize the political importance of all but Maricopa County.
Arizona law sets the number of signatures needed for nomination for statewide office at one-half of one percent of the total voter registration for that candidate's party. So Republican contenders for governor, for example, needed at least 5,660 valid signatures.
The law, however, also says candidates need to meet that one-half percent threshold in at least three counties. With county populations varying, that means the absolute number needed from each county varies.
Attorney Kory Langhofer said that also means signatures obtained in smaller counties are effectively worth more than those in larger counties, and that, he charged, dilutes the votes of Maricopa County residents.
He said, for example, one signature in Maricopa County equals less than 0.01 percent of the total needed from that county. But in Greenlee County, with few residents — and even fewer Republicans — one signature gets a candidate 5 percent of the total needed there.
He said that violates federal constitutional requirements.
Wake, in his 5-page ruling, never addressed any of that. Instead he told Langhofer and his client that they cannot come into court at the last minute and try to upset the electoral process — especially with deadlines approaching to print ballots.
Wake said it's not fair to Secretary of State Ken Bennett, whose office was sued to try to overturn the signature requirements.
“The defendant is also entitled to reasonable time to consider and develop his case,” the judge wrote. “That includes the opportunity to develop and present their own evidence, hire an expert, or prepare cross-examination.”
The judge also pointed out that it's not like the requirement for gathering signatures is anything new or surprising.
“The statute they challenge is not new,” Wake wrote.
“Earlier iterations of the county-distribution signature requirement have existed since statehood,” he continued. “The present version has been in effect since 1980.”
Langhofer said his client is a nonpartisan group interested in voter education, but it also has been involved in some high-profile issues, including running TV commercials attacking Attorney General Tom Horne as being unethical and urging him to resign.
Bennett has said the organization is exempt from disclosing its donors because it does not seek to specifically influence the outcome of any election.