Arizona has the best democracy that money can buy. Or, it has the worst democracy that money can buy.
It depends on how much money you have.
That is probably not the situation the state’s founders had in mind when they inserted into the Arizona constitution a provision (Article 4, Section 1) that reads in part: "The people reserve the power to propose laws and amendments to the constitution and to enact or reject such laws and amendments at the polls, independently of the legislature; and they also reserve, for use at their own option, the power to approve or reject at the polls any act, or item, section or part of any act, of the Legislature."
It’s an excellent concept. It speaks to the passion of ordinary voters. It’s positive. Enlightened. Optimistic. And these days, meaningless.
Particularly when you get to the part that requires 10 percent of "qualified electors" to get an initiative on the ballot and 15 percent to propose an amendment to the Constitution.
Signature gathering is a pain. Particularly as the state’s population has grown and particularly in the summer, which is when most of the names have to be collected.
The passion of most ordinary voters is no match for summer heat. So, most folks who want to put an initiative on the ballot hire paid petition circulators. As a result, it is no longer "the people" who get proposals on the ballot, but the RICH people. Or special-interest groups.
One of the many problems with such a process is that people getting paid on a per-signature basis sometimes cut corners.
"We continue to see errors, mistakes and even potential fraud that is very troubling," Secretary of State Jan Brewer told me. "It’s very costly not only for those who hire these paid circulators but also expensive for my office to process them and then challenge those that are not in the correct form. I really think that this is something the Legislature needs to address. The proof is in the pudding. Just consider what we have gone through this time around."
Already several propositions have failed to make the ballot because not enough valid signatures were collected. One such proposal would have ended affirmation action in Arizona. Proponents of that measure, supported by out-of-state money, went to court to get it back on the ballot, then gave up the fight. It’s been a mess. The opposition to that proposal was lead by state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.
"Arizona is the most popular place to come if you are an out-of-state rich person with an agenda," Sinema told me.
Secretary of State Brewer believes the Legislature should pass a law that either would require petition circulators to be paid by the hour rather than then signature. Others want to ban the practice all together. The problem with the latter, Sinema said, is the number of signatures that currently must be collected.
"If you want to eliminate the paid collectors then I think you have to lower the threshold," she said. For example, dropping the required number of signatures from the current 10 and 15 percent to something like 5 and 8 percent. She added, "Otherwise, we’d be eliminating direct democracy for all practical purposes, and I wouldn’t be in favor that."
According to Brewer, one of the main reasons the system hasn’t been reformed is that elected officials benefit from it.
"Our politicians can’t find volunteer circulators, either," she said. "So they’re not eager to make changes in how things work."
Sure, it costs a lot of money to hire paid circulators, but with the help of a few generous campaign contributors, the politicians can afford it.
The question is, can we?
Reach Montini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8978.