When Arizona’s founding fathers sought to include a voter initiative process in Arizona’s constitution, the intended purpose was to provide regular citizens with a check against wealthy special interests and political insiders that often dominate the legislative process.
Yet it appears that the very system designed to curtail the influence of wealthy billionaires and the political establishment has been taken over by them. Even worse, the hijacking of the initiative process has been carried out primarily by out of state special interests parachuting into Arizona to buy their way onto the ballot box.
In 2018, all of the high-profile ballot measures that qualified for the ballot were primarily funded by California billionaires and special interest groups. This campaign cycle is no different. Four initiatives appear to be on track to qualify for the November ballot. All four are being bankrolled by deep pocketed unions and liberal special interest groups from outside the state:
- Healthcare Rising is an initiative seeking to make several radical changes to Arizona’s hospital system, has received 99.5 percent of their funding from the California chapter of the Services Employee International Union. Of the $3.2 million they have raised to date, only $14,000 (in the form of an in-kind contribution) has come from Arizona.
- Criminal Justice Reform measure looking to overhaul Arizona’s sentencing guidelines has been 100 percent funded by Oakland based Tides Advocacy; a well-financed 501(C)(4) organization with close ties to George Soros and other major progressive donors.
- Invest in Ed is an education measure looking to double the state income tax on small businesses and high earners in the state. Of their funding, 90 percent has come from Stand for Children, Inc., a liberal education group located in Portland, Oregon.
- Smart and Safe is a proposal seeking to legalize marijuana in Arizona. Nearly half of their funding is from large dispensary corporations throughout the country who stand to profit immensely from the exclusive licenses that they will be granted if the ballot measure passes.
Arizona’s initiative process was never intended to be a petri dish for experimental policy cooked up by wealthy special interests from around the country. Yet that is what the process has devolved into because of the low standards that exist to purchase your way onto the ballot.
Based on the current signature requirements and constitutional protections for paying circulators to collect signatures, it is possible to gather enough signatures to qualify a measure for the ballot for around $2 Million dollars.
Though to most Arizonans that sounds like a lot of money, for wealthy donors and political players in California or Washington DC looking to promote radical reforms, $2 million is a small sum of money. Add in the fact that the initiative process is often seen as a way to increase voter turnout and force your political opponents to spend precious resources battling you at the ballot box, these types of financial investments are a no-brainer.
Can Arizona’s initiative process be fixed to protect it from outside influence? It’s possible, but it will require reforms geared toward increasing transparency and requiring more local support and involvement when collecting signatures for the ballot.
One reform worth considering is a geographic distribution requirement for signature collection. Under current Arizona law, initiative measures are not required to gather signatures from around the state in order to qualify for the ballot. Any group can make the ballot simply by gathering signatures from one large city or county.
Stipulating that initiatives must gather signatures from every legislative district would make it much more difficult for out of state special interests to parachute into Arizona and flood the Phoenix Metro area with paid circulators. Additionally, rural communities would gain a voice in the process since initiative groups would have to build support for their ideas in all corners of the state. Of the 27 states with a voter initiative or referendum process, 15 require a geographic distribution of signatures.
Another solution would be to limit the number of topics that may be included in an initiative. One factor that has made Arizona’s ballot measure process so attractive to groups around the country is the ability to include multiple issues in the same measure. Often referred to as log rolling, campaigns will include a few unrelated popular provisions in the initiative in order to provide political cover for other sweeping reforms of which voters are unaware. A single subject requirement, which already exists for all bills proposed at the legislature, would eliminate log rolling and reduce voter confusion at the ballot.
Arizona’s initiative process should not be for sale. It especially should not be controlled by special interests with deep pockets and no ties to our state. Fixing this problem won’t be easy, but should be an issue all Arizonans can rally around.