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Denogean: Ballot query on initiatives was a bad joke for Arizona

The voters of Arizona resoundingly rejected on Tuesday a ballot proposition that would have gutted the initiative process.

Proposition 105, Majority Rules – Let the People Decide, was a bad joke, a measure that would have counted nonvoters on many resident-driven initiatives as “no” votes. Passage of the measure would have made it almost impossible to pass any future initiative that involves government spending.

That said, problems with the initiative process have rightly led some to consider whether it’s in need of reform. The process has “gotten out of control,” in the words of one liberal legislator who never thought he’d say such a thing.

State Rep. Tom Prezelski, D-Tucson, said the state’s founders, having had experience with a corrupt territorial Legislature, put the residents-initiative process into the state constitution to give Arizonans a way around the Legislature. It was and is a valuable tool.

“In 1912, that’s how we extended the right to vote to women,” he said.

However, he said, the concept of a cadre of concerned residents walking the streets to gather signatures for a cause they believe in has given way to an industry of well-financed consultants doing whatever it takes to get something on the ballot.

In many cases, the proposed initiatives aren’t even homegrown but are supported by money pouring in from national groups pushing their own agendas. One such example from this year was the failed anti-affirmative action Arizona Civil Rights Initiative, which was largely funded by the California-based American Civil Rights Institute.

Volunteers have been replaced by hired petition passers, generally paid by the signature, sometimes as much as $5 per signature.

“Fraud, intended and unintended, is rampant,” Prezelski said.

That’s an assertion backed up by the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. In this election season, the office disqualified three initiatives from the ballot because high rates of invalid signatures left them short of the required number of signatures.

It’s not unusual for proposed ballot initiatives to have 20 to 25 percent of signatures ruled ineligible, mostly because of honest error, said Joe Kanefield, state election director. But the rates of invalid signatures on failed petitions this year was in the mid- to high 40 percents.

Worse, many of the signatures were “clearly fraudulent,” including forged signatures and phony names, he said.

Secretary of State Jan Brewer believes there should be a law banning “the bounty practice” of paying per signature, a ban she’s likely to pursue this legislative session, Kanefield said.

Prezelski said reform could include changing how petition passers are paid, requiring that the signatures come from all over the state (not just Maricopa County, for example) and reducing the “absurd” number of required signatures so that it’s realistic for initiatives to come out of a grass-roots effort.

Changes to the signature requirement likely would require an amendment to Arizona’s constitution, Kanefield said.

Prezelski, who lost his bid for re-election in the primary, said a legislative ad-hoc group met last year to discuss how to improve the process but didn’t get far.

“Our problem, to be quite frank, was that some of the grass-roots groups we work with are very sensitive. They don’t want to touch the process at all,” Prezelski said.

State Rep. Phil Lopes, D-Tucson, said if there is a problem with the process, he’s not sure how to solve it.

“The side I come down on is just letting it go,” he said.

His is not an unreasonable position, nor are the fears of the grass-roots groups who understand that there are people who would reform the initiative process out of existence.

Earlier this year, Republican Russell Pearce of Mesa, then a state representative and elected Tuesday as a state senator, proposed a referendum asking Arizonans to give the Legislature the right to ignore the mandates of voter-passed initiatives when budget times are tough.

Fortunately, it went nowhere.

So, is there a way to protect this valuable process from both corruption and destruction?

If not, the only answer is to have faith in the voters.

On Tuesday, despite the millions spent on signature gathering and advertising, much of it highly deceptive, Arizonans defeated five of the eight ballot propositions. The “no” votes are ahead on a sixth measure that’s still too close to call.

While I don’t agree with the outcome on all the measures, the results were consistent with previous legislation supported by Arizonans and polling on the issues in question.

The voters, to their great credit, weren’t duped by the big spenders exploiting the process.

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.

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