A new federal court lawsuit could alter how candidates for statewide office get the signatures they need — and do it in a way that could leave voters in all but the largest county out of the process.
Attorney Kory Langhofer claims it's a federal constitutional violation to require would-be officeholders to gather signatures in at least three counties. He said the mandate effectively gives voters in smaller counties greater power to decide who gets on the ballot.
More to the point, Langhofer said that comes at the expense of voters in Maricopa County and, to a lesser extent, residents of Pima and Pinal counties.
That contention will get a legal fight from Secretary of State Ken Bennett. He rejected Langhofer's contention that anything about the requirement makes one person's vote more valuable than that of anyone else.
Bennett said the requirement, which goes back to the first days of statehood, is designed to ensure that candidates “have some modicum of statewide appeal.”
Langhofer, representing a nonprofit political group known as the Arizona Public Integrity Alliance, wants U.S. District Judge Neil Wake to immediately nullify that requirement.
The chances of that happening for this election, though, appear nil. That's because Wake scheduled legal arguments on the issue for May 29, a day after candidates have to submit their petitions.
But Langhofer said he's pursuing the issue not on behalf of any candidate but several Maricopa County residents who find the process unfair. The attorney said if the change has to wait until the 2016 race, that's OK, too.
The number of signatures a candidate needs to run for statewide office is linked to the number of people registered for that party. For Republicans, like those who Langhofer said his organization represents, that figure this year is 5,651.
That, however, is only part of the equation.
The law also requires that candidates get the signatures of at least one-half of one percent of party registered voters in at least three counties. That, said Langhofer, is where the question of inequality comes in.
For example, he said gathering one signature in Maricopa County gets a candidate less than 0.01 percent of the way there. By contrast, in Greenlee County, where there are far fewer Republicans, one signature equals more than 5 percent of the total required to comply.
“Because it takes the same amount of energy, and the smaller counties are worth more, you will see that a huge percentage of the campaigns go to the small, outlying counties — Graham, Greenlee, Santa Cruz — to satisfy these requirements,” Langhofer said.
“They're not going to spend the time in the populous counties,” he continued. “Our signatures are worth less.”
Bennett said the flaw in that argument is that the overall signature number remains.
He said it's not like someone could go to those three small counties, get one-half of one percent of party registrants there, and get on the ballot. Bennett said that would leave the candidate far short of the overall number required.
“Everyone has to get the same number of total minimum signatures,” Bennett said. “It's not as though someone gets on the ballot with just the signatures from a few small counties.”
Langhofer, however, said that's irrelevant, and he claims to have legal precedent on his side, saying federal courts have struck down laws elsewhere where petition requirements result in unequal relative strength among voters.
The underlying group has been involved in various ways with Republican Party politics for a couple of years. Most recently it is funding a TV commercial attacking Attorney General Tom Horne as being unethical and urging him to resign or face the possibility of impeachment.
Horne has complained about prior attacks by the group which does not disclose its donors. But Bennett said the organization is exempt because it is not seeking to specifically influence the outcome of any election but instead falls under an exception for doing voter education on issues.