Power to the people – ballot initiatives were originally designed to establish just that. But does this method of direct democracy actually give Arizona citizens a leg up?
Every election cycle, voters see a handful of Yes / No proposals on the ballot. From tax increases to minimum wage hikes to medicinal marijuana, these are policy issues presented to Arizona voters to decide for themselves whether to amend state law or the state constitution through citizen action.
How does a ballot initiative get on the ballot? A citizen must prepare a petition for a proposed change to state law or a constitutional amendment for submission to the Arizona Secretary of State. After the petition is submitted, the citizen must then collect signatures. The signatures to be collected must represent either 10 percent or 15 percent of the electorate from the last gubernatorial election (10 percent for changes to state statute, and 15 percent for any amendments to the constitution). Should the citizen gather the required number of signatures, the signatures are then reviewed and approved by the Secretary of State. If the signatures are approved, the proposed ballot initiative will be placed on the next general election ballot.
Based on the 2018 gubernatorial election voter turnout, for example, initiative proponents must collect just over 237 thousand signatures for changes to state statute, and 356 thousand for constitutional amendments for the upcoming 2020 general election ballot.
Statecraft law firm’s managing partner Kory Langhofer describes the initial intent of the Arizona ballot initiative process. “It begins with the state’s founding in 1912 when our founders created our constitution,” he explains. “When they were setting up the state constitution, it was an era called the ‘populist era’. Basically, they didn’t trust elite executives to make good decisions. They thought the ordinary voter would be in a good position to make major policy propositions, so they became their own legislature in a way.”
Access to Arizona’s ballot has become an increasingly powerful and expensive tool. Referring an issue or policy to the ballot eliminates the need to propose a matter of policy to the state legislature, which may not share the same policy agenda. But, the ballot initiative process also poses serious risks.
As of 1998, anything approved by the voters via the ballot box is “voter-protected.” Meaning, the only way to amend, alter, or repeal the initiative would be to send it back to the voters for approval at the next general election. Otherwise, any proposed changes to voter-protected initiatives require a three-fourths vote in both legislative chambers. But, most notably, said changes must only “further the intent of the measure.” In short, once approved by the voters, it is extremely difficult to fix or change.
In recent years, the initiative process has been largely captured by interest groups with deep pockets. Langhofer points out that this can be very positive for the state because these interest groups can be more effective and push good policy forward. However, it can also be dangerous, Langhofer notes.
“Sometimes it is very bad, where you have special interest groups who have run ballot measures that would be catastrophic if passed,” he asserts. “This is because it’s not based around the actual law but more around a wealthy consultant who knows how to label and advertise the initiatives. There is real concern that the founders of Arizona never anticipated.”
Special interests – not Arizona citizens – are the ones with millions of dollars to spend on petition-circulating, signature-gathering efforts. Some states combat this problem by requiring geographic parameters to secure signatures from diverse areas throughout the whole state versus a specific county with one big city. At this time, Arizona does not have any such geographical distribution rule.
In recent years, many interest groups behind Arizona’s ballot initiatives have come from out of state. This convolutes the interests’ financial backing and intentions as it relates to how the proposed policy will affect Arizona’s businesses and workers.
We are in a time where transparency is becoming both increasingly challenging and vital. When signing or voting for a ballot initiative, voters should have accurate information about the proposition and the statewide consequences.
In part 2 of this series, CBN will explore the Voter Protection Act and its impact on laws and state budget for the past 20 years.