Arizonans are entitled to vote in November whether they want to scrap the current system of partisan primaries, a Maricopa County judge ruled Friday.
Judge John Rea said supporters of the Open Government initiative proved to him that Maricopa County officials had improperly concluded that 577 of the more than 13,000 signatures they had been asked to review were invalid.
That number is significant as each county is given a random sample of 5 percent of all signatures to check. That makes each of the names restored equivalent to 20 signatures on the original petitions.
Rea's ruling translates out to 11,540 signatures. And the judge said that means initiative organizers now have 6,372 more names than the 259,213 necessary.
In a separate ruling, the judge concluded that opponents showed that some of the petitions were circulated by people with felony convictions. That makes all the signatures they gathered invalid.
But Rea said it does not matter.
He said the evidence presented to him on Thursday showed the number of signatures gathered by those felons equals just 2,056. And with the names restored in the other lawsuit, that still leaves the petition drive with more than enough names.
Friday's ruling, however, may not be the last word. Attorney Mike Liburdi who represents the Save Our Vote Committee, which is trying to keep the measure off the ballot, said he intends to appeal.
"I won on the merits,'' he said, with Rea concluding that, in every instance where he presented evidence, the petition had been circulated by a felon.
The problem, Liburdi said, is that Rea, who was hearing both cases on Thursday, gave each side only a limited amount of time. And the judge cut off Liburdi before he had a chance to introduce more of the petitions allegedly circulated by felons into evidence.
"I think what this ruling says is that there were problems with the signature gatherers, substantial problems with them in fact,'' Liburdi said. "And had there been enough time to present my case, this thing would have been a goner.''
Joe Yuhas, spokesman for the Open Government campaign, said the decision to appeal is no surprise.
"Obviously, they don't want this to go before the voters,'' he said.
But Yuhas sidestepped questions about whether challengers are entitled to more time to try to show that more of the petitions were circulated by felons.
"I think the voters of Arizona are entitled to vote on the initiative,'' he said.
Aaron Baer, spokesman for the opponents, said he believes they should be given "proper time to present our evidence.''
Baer acknowledged that Rea told Liburdi at the beginning of Thursday's hearing exactly how much time he would have to make his case. But Baer said that does not matter.
"We're arguing we did not get due process,'' he said.
Time has been an issue because Maricopa County had to send information on all the ballot measures to the printer on Friday.
But county Elections Director Karen Osborne said there still is a chance to remove what would be Proposition 121 from the ballot if the courts conclude next week it should not be there. She said the printing presses are not scheduled to start for another week, allowing her to direct the item be excised.
"I have my big eraser,'' she quipped.
The initiative would scrap the current system for electing statewide, legislative and supervisor candidates where those registered with each political party get to choose the nominees for each office, with the survivors facing off in the general election. Also gone would be the partisan city elections that exist only in Tucson.
In its place, all candidates for each office would run in the same primary. Then the two who get the most votes would advance to the November election, regardless of party affiliation.
Proponents contend it would result in the election of more moderate candidates, as contenders would have to appeal to more than the highly partisan voters who tend to show up for each party's races.
Much of the opposition has come from Republicans who currently dominate Arizona politics who say that the party nomination helps voters figure out which candidate is more likely to share their views. But the initiative also is opposed by some Hispanic Democrats who fear it will reduce the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice.
The League of Women Voters also is on record opposing the measure.