PHOENIX (AP) - A voter initiative rolling back 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 death knell after an on-again off-again series of court rulings.
The high court decision upholds a lower court ruling issued hours earlier, in which Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joseph Mikitish rejected thousands of signatures and said the initiative fell 1,458 signatures short of the 238,000 required to qualify for the ballot. The judge’s Friday ruling reversed his own decision from a day earlier after the Supreme Court asked him to explain how he concluded on Thursday that initiative had enough valid signatures to qualify.
The Supreme Court’s ruling is the last word in a week-long battle between initiative backers and opponents. Critics, led by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, succeeded in knocking off enough qualifying signatures for the measure to barely fail.
Lawyers supporting the initiative had urged the Supreme Court to allow the measure to reach voters, saying Mikitish violated the law by allowing challengers to throw out more signatures than allowed.
"In reversing itself today, the trial court has done something never done before in Arizona initiative practice and which is not authorized by statute," they wrote. "It has allowed initiative challengers to strike individual signatures under (the law), for any reason, AND allowed them to benefit from the invalidity rate calculated by the County Recorders’ random sample that the challengers DID NOT include in this lawsuit."
Chief Justice Robert Brutinel had said in his order that the court was unable to determine exactly how Mikitish came to his determination that backers had collected enough valid signatures for the measure to appear on November’s ballot.
The high court has already ruled in challenges to two other initiatives, keeping them on the November ballot. The justices said Wednesday that business groups that challenged a proposal requiring greater transparency for political spending and boosting the amount of assets shielded from creditors failed to knock off enough signatures.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and the GOP leaders of the House and Senate had urged the high court to reject all three measures.
Mikitish has presided over three weeks of hearings in a case filed by a pro-business group that challenged many of the nearly 400,000 signatures the initiative backers filed. After lawyers for the Arizona Free Enterprise Club succeeded in knocking off nearly 96,000 signatures, and a county review to determine if the signatures were valid kicked off nearly 64,000 more, it was left with just 2,281 more than the required 237,645 signatures needed to make the ballot.
On Friday, Mikitish flipped those numbers.
The Free and Fair Elections measure sought to change a slew of election laws. It would have specifically blocked the Legislature from overturning the results of presidential elections, an avenue some Republicans explored after former President Donald Trump’s loss in the state in 2020.
It also would have guaranteed ballot privacy and bars handing election materials or ballots over to outside groups like the state Senate did after 2020, expanded voting access, mandated that all voters can go to any polling site, extended early voting and limited lobbyists’ ability to wine and dine lawmakers.
"The single most important component in this initiative is that it prevents the Legislature from overturning the results of an election," Stacy Pearson, spokeswoman for the initiative backers, said Thursday. "And, it prevents Cyber Ninjas in green shirts from spinning around ballots on Lazy Susan tables again, and making a mockery of Arizona’s extraordinarily safe and secure election process."
The measure also would eliminate the "strict compliance" legal standard that led Mikitish to disqualify many of the petition sheets. The GOP-controlled Legislature required that standard for initiatives in 2017, making it easier to throw them out for relatively minor paperwork errors.
Scot Mussi, president of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, last week called the election law proposal "a 25-page measure that makes over 60 different changes to Arizona law."
"Many of these changes and radical reforms they are doing are not supported, and they are trying to sneak in their confusing measure and see if they can get it passed," Mussi said.
The Free Enterprise Club challenged tens of thousands of signatures, many for exceptionally minor issues.
For instance, 7,000 signatures were challenged because a volunteer petition circulator mistakenly checked a box that indicated they were paid circulators.
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