By BOB CHRISTIE – Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — An election initiative reversing Republican-backed election law changes and expanding voting access will not appear on the November ballot, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Friday, issuing a final knell after a series of court decisions.
The High Court ruling upholds a lower court ruling issued hours earlier in which Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joseph Mikitish dismissed thousands of signatures and said the initiative was 1,458 signatures lower than the 238,000 required to qualify for the ballot. The judge’s ruling on Friday overturned his own ruling from a day earlier after the Supreme Court asked him to explain how he concluded the initiative had enough valid signatures to qualify.
The Supreme Court’s decision is the final word in a week-long battle between the initiative’s supporters and opponents. The critics, led by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, managed to knock off enough qualifying signatures that the measure barely failed.
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Lawyers backing the initiative had urged the Supreme Court to allow the measure to reach voters, saying the Mikitish broke the law by letting challengers toss more signatures than allowed.
“In reversing today, the trial court did something never done before in the practice of the Arizona initiative and not authorized by law,” they wrote. “It allowed the challengers of the initiative to have individual signatures signed under (the law), for any reason, AND allowed them to benefit from the disability rate calculated by the random sample of County Recorders that the challengers have NOT included in this lawsuit.”
But Chief Justice Robert Brutinel, in a brief order, simply upheld the revised decision and dismissed the ballot initiative. When the judge upheld the measure the day before, Brutinel refused to accept it, saying the court was unable to determine exactly how Mikitish came to his conclusion that supporters had collected enough valid signatures for the measure appears on the November ballot.
The Arizona Free Enterprise Club said in a statement that the High Court’s decision “confirms what we have known all along: the Radical Free and Fair Election Initiative lacked enough legal signatures to qualify for the ballot.
“The other side knew that too, and that’s why their lawyers tried to get the court to adopt a rigged methodology to calculate the final number of valid signatures that would put their disqualified measure on the ballot.”
Proponents of the initiative called the legal challenge a continuation of Republican-led efforts to gut Arizona’s initiative process. The state constitution says the people have the right to make their own laws, but the legislature and business groups have been pushing for changes that make it easier to launch ballot initiatives.
Voters will see the GOP’s efforts in this direction in November. Several laws making it more difficult to pass or change initiatives have been sent back to the polls to be weighed by voters.
“Some politicians have been intentionally trying to attack the ballot measurement process for more than a decade to prevent voters from being able to make decisions about Arizona’s future at the ballot box,” the initiative committee said in a statement. a statement. “Today’s decision is a continuation of those attacks and reflects an increasingly extreme MAGA agenda.”
The High Court had already ruled on challenges to two other initiatives, upholding them on the November ballot. The judges said on Wednesday that business groups that challenged a proposal requiring greater transparency of political spending and increasing the amount of assets protected from creditors failed to secure enough signatures.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and House and Senate GOP leaders had urged the High Court to reject all three measures. Ducey named five of the seven judges.
Mikitish presided over more than three weeks of hearings in a case brought by a pro-business group that challenged many of the nearly 400,000 signatures filed by supporters of the initiative. After attorneys for the Arizona Free Enterprise Club successfully knocked down nearly 96,000 signatures and a county review to determine if the signatures were valid threw nearly 64,000 more, all that was left was 2,281 signatures more than the 237,645 signatures needed to vote.
On Friday, Mikitish reversed those numbers.
The free and fair elections measure sought to amend a multitude of election laws. That would have specifically prevented the Legislature from overturning presidential election results, a avenue some Republicans have explored after former President Donald Trump’s loss to the state in 2020.
It would also have guaranteed ballot confidentiality and prohibitions on handing over election materials or ballots to outside groups like the State Senate did after 2020, expanded access to vote, required that all voters can go to any polling place, extended early voting and limited the ability of lobbyists to wine and dine legislators.
The measure would also eliminate the legal standard of “strict compliance” that has led Mikitish to disqualify many petition sheets. The GOP-controlled legislature mandated this standard for initiatives in 2017, making it easier to dismiss them for relatively minor paperwork errors.
The Free Enterprise Club has challenged tens of thousands of signatures, many for exceptionally minor issues.
For example, 7,000 signatures were challenged because a volunteer petition circulator mistakenly checked a box indicating they were paid circulators.
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