Groundhog Day

We held another petition signing event at our house over the past couple of days and it occurred to me what long shots citizen driven ballot initiatives are. And, that they are often, reactive, not proactive. It may feel as though we are in the driver’s seat when pursuing ballot measures, but just as in Vegas, the “house” always wins, it seems that no matter what statutory changes we can force, the Legislature will always figure a way to fight back.

The real answer of course, is that we MUST take back the Legislature, or at the very least, one of the chambers. We do that by building a bench of qualified candidates through training them, supporting them with funding and ground game, and then winning seats on school boards, water boards, fire boards, city councils, and in county government.

Unfortunately, it takes time to be strategic and we are running out of that time. While the Democrats were focused on the White House during President Obama’s time, Republicans were busy taking over state governments. In fact, 29 state legislative chambers in 19 states flipped from Democratic to Republican during Obama’s presidency. Of course, Arizona Democrats lost control of our Legislature way back in 1966 and haven’t won it back since.

And although Arizona is one of the 13 states that use independent redistricting commissions to exclusively draw electoral districts boundaries, Democrats can’t necessarily count on that effort to help us. Yes, if the district boundaries are fairly drawn, demographics could deliver wins for Democrats. But, those who would vote for Democrats have to actually show up to vote and the Legislature is working hard to put even more roadblocks in their way. A good example is the July Supreme Court decision that gave states more latitude to impose restrictions on voting. The Arizona laws that drove the SCOTUS decision were that 1) voters who vote in the wrong precinct, will not have their vote counted and 2) it is a crime for any person other than a postal worker, an elections official, or a voter’s caregiver, family member or household member to knowingly collect an early ballot – either before or after it has been completed. Adam Liptak, for the New York Times, wrote:

[A]mong the most consequential in decades on voting rights, and it was the first time the court had considered how a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 applies to restrictions that have a particular impact on people of color.

This SCOTUS ruling, no doubt helped clear the way for Texas to recently enact a slew of new voting restrictions, “including limits on early voting hours and other measures opponents say will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tent to vote Democratic, and those with disabilities”. Where Texas (and Florida) go, can Arizona be far behind?

So, Democrats can win in Arizona if we can get liberals and left-leaning (or maybe just reasonable) independents to vote. Unfortunately, that’s a huge “IF”. Many of the people we need to vote are people of color who already feel disenfranchised or don’t trust the system, and the GOP’s incessant attack on those same people’s ability to vote, just makes it that much harder to persuade them to step up.

Of course, we can’t give up. We just have to be focused and strategic. That’s how Stacey Abrams and a network of activists, ten years to flip Georgia. In an interview with Politico before the 2020 election, she said,

“When you’re trying to not only harness demographic changes but leverage low-propensity voters, you cannot simply hope that they’ll hear the message. You have to treat them as persuasion voters. Only the message is not trying to persuade them to share Democratic values.  Your message is to persuade them that voting can actually yield change.”

So, Arizona Democrats need to focused, strategic, cohesive and demonstrate where we have the power, we know what to do with it. We need to use every opportunity to demonstrate that we know how to make government work. We also need to develop a bench of candidates to move up through the system. We do this by not leaving any seats unchallenged without Democratic candidates. And, we ensure those candidates receive training and support before they hit the streets. At the same time, we’ll need to continue to pursue whatever means we have to push back on the terrible laws our Legislature enacts. For now, at least, those means are initiatives, referendums and recalls which have been a part of Arizona’s governance from the beginning with women’s suffrage, passing by a margin of greater than two to one in 1912.

Both referendums and initiatives are processes for collecting and verifying signatures. According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Initiative and Referendum Guide, “An initiative is the method by which voters may propose new laws or amend existing laws”, and a referendum is “the method by which voters may veto a law (or part of a law)”. A petition refers to the physical piece of paper used to collect signatures in order to qualify for the ballot. Recalls are a way to remove office holders who weren’t responding to their constituent’s wishes. 

The process for initiating initiatives is fairly simple, consisting of gaining clearance from the AZ Secretary of State to circulate a petition and then gathering the required number of signatures from registered voters. “If the signature requirements are met, (statutory changes require a number of signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the last gubernatorial vote, 15 percent for a constitutional initiative), the measure is placed on the next general election ballot for voters to decide by a simple majority.

But bringing an initiative home is another matter entirely. According to Dr. David R. Berman, Senior Research Fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, 425 initiative petitions had been “taken out” between 1970 and 2013, but only 67 (16%) made it to the ballot. And, less than half of those (32) were approved by voters, “making for an overall success rate – from petition to passage – of just 8 percent.” In fact, Berman writes that a “commonly employed rule of thumb is that one out of four gathered signatures will be rejected – often because the signee is not officially recorded as a registered voter.” 

And although Arizona has led the nation in using the Internet for voting-related matters such as online voter registration, to include gathering signatures for candidates, our Legislature has not supported making the initiative signature gathering process simpler. They’ve effectively ensured the signature gathering process is cumbersome (as in requiring that petition signers may not touch any part of the box lines on the petition as they fill them out) and expensive (upwards of $1 million for a statewide effort).

And sometimes we are our own worst enemy when we run numerous ballot measures in the same election. Of course, the Legislature doesn’t help by placing multiple ballot measures of their own on the ballot.

In his 2013 report titled, “Initiative Refore in Arizona: Exploring Some Ideas”, Dr. Berman expressed concern about a large number of ballot measures appearing on the ballot at the same time:

“[W]hen faced with a large number of initiative propositions, voters are less willing or able to examine each individual proposition in detail. In this situation, many decide not to vote – in any given election, 10 percent to 25 percent of those who vote for candidates at the top of the ballot fail to vote on one or more of the proposition measures. Others play it safe by simply voting “no” on all or most of the propositions. Those who plunge ahead and vote on numerous initiatives may wind up voting for something they do not like or against something they do like. In either case, they may later regret their decision.”

It gives me pause then, to have had six petitions lined up for signature at one time. Three, seeking to repeal voter suppression laws and three to repeal laws designed to circumvent Prop 208 (to raise more funding for schools), by implementing a new flat tax rate. The final petition in circulation at this time is a Voter’s Right to Know initiative to stop Dark Money from influencing our elections. This is our third try for this one. And according to Ballotpedia, there are six other ballot measures that were filed with the Secretary of State’s office, as well as three Legislature driven referendums that will be on the ballot.

What are the chances voters will take the time to understand these laws and then vote to repeal them? Isn’t there already a problem with voters taking time to vote down ballot even when they do show up to vote? I am concerned about the viability of these efforts. Yes, Arizonans have had some recent success with initiatives such as Props 123 and 208, but seven initiatives (plus whatever else comes) are a lot for voters to get behind.

And although signing petitions makes voters feel like they’ve taken real action, in the end they may just feel even more discouraged when yet again, we are unsuccessful in driving change. If we really want things to change, we must be laser-focused on gaining seats in the Legislature. Otherwise, we’re just watching Groundhog Day on automatic replay.