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Republican efforts to bypass Hobbs could mean a long ballot this fall

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Republican efforts to bypass Hobbs could mean a long ballot this fall

Apr 02, 2024 | 10:15 am ET
By Caitlin Sievers
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Republican efforts to bypass Hobbs could mean a long ballot this fall
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Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

There is no question that Arizona ballots are going to be lengthy this fall, but a Republican strategy to bypass Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs — and her veto stamp — could make them much longer. 

Last year, Hobbs issued a record 143 vetoes of bills that passed through the state House and Senate, most of which had only Republican support. Republicans, who have a one-seat majority in each chamber, decided this year to instead pass resolutions to send to the voters for approval as a work-around to Hobbs’ chopping block. 

State law requires a signature from Hobbs for those to become law, but if both chambers approve a resolution to send to voters, a signature from the governor is not required. 

This year, Republican lawmakers proposed more than 70 ballot referrals, but only two so far have made it through both chambers and will head to the ballot. There are still 15 that have made it far enough in the legislative process that they could still be sent to voters, but Republican leaders are tight-lipped about whether there’s a cap on how many they’re willing to take to the ballot. 

House Speaker Ben Toma did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and in answer to questions about Republican leadership’s plans when it comes to referendums Senate President Warren Petersen simply said, “Stay tuned.”

All the resolutions that the Legislature sends to the ballot this fall will be added to the four they sent to the ballot statewide last year, as well as any of the 13 citizen initiatives that voters themselves might send to the ballot. Lawmakers in 2023 also sent one additional ballot measure to Maricopa County voters only. 

With referendums from lawmakers, voter initiatives, a long list of judges to approve and numerous other races, Maricopa County is already set to have a two-page ballot this year — and it could grow to three pages. 

Such a lengthy ballot, the likes of which Maricopa County voters haven’t seen in 18 years, raises concerns about voter fatigue in addition to creating logistical hurdles. 

This could lead to more of what’s called “undervoting,” or when voters return their ballot but don’t mark choices for all of the races on it, Chuck Coughlin, CEO of Phoenix-based public affairs firm HighGround, told the Arizona Mirror. 

A lengthy ballot could also cause frustration for those who show up to vote on Election Day and have to wait behind people who take their time filling out their ballot, which could lead to frustration for people waiting in line behind them. 

A three-page ballot will also be more costly to the counties and take more time to count, something that is already a cause of frustration to Arizonans. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said that she has major concerns with the possibility of a three-page ballot, which she called “curious and worrisome, especially for candidates whose races are down the ballot.”

“They’re (Republicans) just trying to bypass the governor, so many of these (ballot referrals) are extreme,” Epstein said. “What is the point of sending such an extreme measure to the ballot? To avoid a veto and to complicate the ballot.” 

The two ballot referrals approved this year are House Concurrent Resolution 2023, which would give property tax breaks to owners who spend money to mitigate problems caused by encampments of unhoused people near their property, and Senate Concurrent Resolution 1021, which would require a life sentence for those convicted of child sex trafficking.

Ensuring harsher penalties for those convicted of child sex trafficking might seem like something Republicans and Democrats could agree on, but Epstein said the resolution is written too broadly, and could inadvertently ensnare the victims of sex trafficking themselves. 

“Sometimes, people who are victims are coerced into recruiting others, and they don’t necessarily deserve natural life (in prison),” she said. 

Another resolution that is one vote away from being placed on the November ballot, House Concurrent Resolution 2032, would eliminate no-excuse early voting in Arizona and cap voting precincts at 1,000 voters. Both of those changes have their origins in conspiracy theories that the 2020 and 2022 elections were stolen from Republican candidates and county leaders and election experts have panned them as unworkable. 

Republicans separately introduced bills this year that would eliminate early voting, by far the most popular way to vote in Arizona, and would cap voting precincts at 1,000 voters, but if lawmakers vote to pass those bills, Hobbs is certain to veto them. 

Other ballot referrals still on the table would allow court challenges to citizen-led ballot initiatives before the proposal is placed on the ballot, as well as one that would prohibit public entities from entering into contracts with companies that discriminate against a “firearm entity or firearm trade association.” 

Unintended consequences

It’s not just ballot-length and voter fatigue that some lawmakers are worried about, but the fact that voter-approved laws are virtually impossible to alter — even if they’re not working as intended.

In 1998 Arizona voters approved the Voter Protection Act, which amended the state constitution to forbid lawmakers from modifying voter approved initiatives without going back to the ballot for permission, unless those changes advance the purpose of the original initiative. And even then, the change must win three-fourths supermajorities in each legislative chamber.

Sen. Ken Bennett, of Prescott, is the only Republican who’s publicly expressed concerns about sending overly-complicated resolutions to the ballot because they might have unintended consequences that can’t be easily fixed. 

Bennett was the lone Republican who, in February, voted against Senate Concurrent Resolution 1013, which would have eliminated a wide range of inclusive practices used by teachers and school officials to help trans and gender nonconforming students feel more welcome. 

Bennett said at the time that he agreed with the intent of the underlying legislation, but that sending it to the ballot was the wrong move, in large part because of the Voter Protection Act. 

“I’m always very cautious of putting complicated legislation in a referral to the voters because, if something goes awry, we can’t fix it,” he said. “We would have to wait two years, and I don’t want to fix things every two years.”

Bennett also joined Democrats in voting down House Concurrent Resolution 2018 in March, which would ask voters to ban taxes based on vehicle miles traveled. He raised similar concerns about that resolution, saying he agreed with the spirit of it, but foresaw unintended consequences

In Epstein’s view, lawmakers at the Capitol are obligated to vet and work out the kinks in their proposals before they become law, so by sending resolutions straight to voters without getting buy-in from both sides, they’re essentially shirking their responsibilities. 

“Sending these extremely complex pieces of law to the ballot feels a little bit like the legislature not doing our jobs,” Epstein said. “It’s our job to do that work.”