New paper looks at Arizona’s initiative process, potential subject of reform next legislative session

A new paper from the Arizona Chamber Foundation surveys Arizona’s citizen initiative process and looks at how it compares to other states with direct democracy systems, the shortcomings of the system, and potential reforms and remedies. 

The paper assesses the extent to which out-of-state interests influence the Arizona ballot, and whether reforms to the signature gathering process, single-subject rule, and vote thresholds would positively affect direct democracy in Arizona. Proponents of the initiative process highlight the ability to have a direct impact in the way the government runs and makes decisions. As opposed to representative democracy, voting on an initiative gives citizens the opportunity to have a larger impact per person on government policy. When an initiative, whether proposing a statutory change or a constitutional amendment, is put on the ballot, participating voters can vote directly on the issue at hand. 

The paper, however, finds that there are some potential downsides to the process.

Other states with a citizen initiative process have seen these downsides and have worked to amend their processes.

Geographic distribution requirements

There are many issues with Arizona’s initiative process that other states have already addressed. One such issue is that of geographic distribution of the petition signatures. In Arizona there is no requirement regarding how many signatures must come from different legislative or congressional districts.

Maryland, for example, requires that no more than 50% of signatures can come from any one county or the city of Baltimore. Other states’ requirements are more restrictive, such as in Massachusetts where there can be no more than 25% of signatures obtained from a single county. These restrictions aim to protect against outside influences coming into the state and receiving a disproportionate number of signatures from populous areas, thus underrepresenting folks who live elsewhere. 

The downside of this potential reform is that it also makes it more difficult for petitioners to get the number of signatures needed to make it onto the ballot.

Possibility of reigning in out-of-state petition circulators

Another issue that arises is the ability of interest groups to rely on petition circulators from out of state who work temporarily as petition circulators in Arizona. Many of the states that have an initiative process have restricted the use of outside circulators because they want the circulators to have a vested interest in the changes being made in the state.  

However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Nadar v. Brewer struck down an earlier attempt at a residency requirement in Arizona because it was not narrowly tailored to meet a state interest and was therefore ruled to be unconstitutional. This makes it more difficult to remedy the situation, but if the Arizona Legislature were able to create a law that was narrowly tailored to further the state’s interest then it might be able to uphold the restriction as in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and other states.  

A simple majority vs. a supermajority 

Ballot initiatives in Arizona, whether proposing a new statute or an amendment to the state constitution, can pass if they earn one more ‘yes’ vote than ‘no’ votes. That’s not the case in all states.

The paper looks at examples in other states where measures must receive more than Arizona’s 50-percent-plus-1 requirement or must receive a certain percentage of votes cast in the entire election, guarding against a significant undervote determining an outcome. 

“For example, in Massachusetts, statutory initiatives and constitutional amendments can pass with a simple majority, but only if the total number of votes cast on the measure equals at least 30 percent of the total votes cast in the entire election,” the paper says. “As explained by the National Council of State Legislatures, this means that if 100 voters cast votes in the election, at least 30 of them must cast a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on the initiative. If that minimum number of participatory votes is not achieved, the initiative fails.” 

“With Arizona’s citizen initiative process increasingly becoming an attractive venue for out-of-state interests to advance their agenda, it is worth examining whether and how to improve and strengthen the system to ensure it represents the best interests of the state,” Arizona Chamber Foundation Executive Director Garrick Taylor said. “This paper looks at reforms implemented by other states to preserve the integrity of their initiative systems that lawmakers in Arizona might consider. In light of Arizona’s Voter Protection Act, measures adopted by voters are nearly irreversible and, in the case of negative unintended consequences, nearly irreparable. Legislators and voters ought to consider whether such a high-risk form of lawmaking needs improvement.” 

The paper is part of the Foundation’s Business Ballot project, which focuses on research related to Arizona initiatives, campaigns, and elections. 

The research was conducted and paper authored by Chamber Foundation Junior Fellows Taylor Hersch and Stephen Matter.

Taylor Hersch

Stephen Matter

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