Legislative Candidates To Lose Online Nominating Signature Option Amid AZSOS Confusion

secretary of state

A legislative candidate in Arizona cannot get their name on a ballot unless they obtain a minimum number of signatures on a nominating petition. Those signatures have traditionally been obtained on paper petitions, but state law now allows some or all of the required signatures to be collected online through a system run by Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.

That online system, called E-Qual, has been touted by Hobbs for its ease of use and 24/7 convenience. However, the system will go offline in a few weeks, just as nominating petitions can start being submitted, Hobbs’ office has announced.

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Part of the issue is that the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (AIRC) recently approved new boundaries for the state’s 30 legislative districts (LDs) and 9 congressional districts (CDs). Those new district boundaries take effective later this year but have not yet been formally adopted.

Kori Lorick, Hobbs’ elections director, explained that E-Qual is tied into Arizona’s voter database. Which means E-Qual is designed to compare a prospective petition signer’s voter registration file to ensure they only sign petitions for their districts.

There is no option at this time, Lorick insists, for E-Qual to determine the forthcoming LD of a prospective online petition signer.

Hobbs’ office confirmed last week that the system limitation means a candidate who wants to use E-Qual instead of or in addition to paper petitions cannot register yet under the new LD. The confusion has led Hobbs to announce E-Qual will go offline sometime in March.

It was expected the E-Qual would be updated later this month when the AIRC plans to formally transmit the new district maps to Hobbs. Yet that is only the first step, as all 15 counties must then reconfigure their various precincts and update their voter registration data to reflect every registered voters’ new LD and CD.

Only after every county completes that process can Hobbs’ office update the state’s voter database. Any county overseeing a municipal or school district in March will wait until those elections are closed out to do the update. Then, says Lorick, E-Qual can finally be updated so candidates can utilize it for nominating petitions.

But several Arizona towns and cities have 2022 municipal elections slated for early March. One is in Maricopa County, meaning the county with more voters than the rest of the state combined won’t get its update finalized until late March or early April. And E-Qual cannot go back online until then.

Candidates can begin submitting their nominating petitions on March 5; the submission deadline is April 4. As a result, candidates across the state who intended to obtain signatures via E-Qual must now adapt their plans to include more door-to-door campaigning and attending community events.

While candidates of all parties will be impacted by the temporary loss of E-Qual, many campaign professionals say losing the online option will hurt more candidates on the Democrat ticket. That is based on many Democrat voters are more likely to avoid large gatherings due to the current COVID-10 omicron variant.

The unavailability of online petition signing leading up to the deadline is not the only confusion coming from Hobbs’ office concerning E-Qual.

During the last legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill which allows 2022 candidates to collect signatures in their current district and in the new LD they are running in. This “safe harbor” law ensures a candidate can solicit nominating petition signatures before the official boundaries of the new district has gone into effect.

However, Hobbs’s office announced a different interpretation last month, suggesting a candidate could also solicit signatures from voters in the current LD number of the new LD they want to represent. Hobbs’ office recently reversed course on that opinion, leaving some candidates susceptible to having their nomination petitions challenged in superior court.

It is one reason some election experts are advising candidates to carefully review all signatures they plan to submit, to ensure advice from Hobbs’ office about the safe harbor law doesn’t result in an election challenge based on invalid signatures.

It is also why members of Hobbs’ staff are suggesting candidates might want to confer with an attorney.

In the meantime, one Arizona lawmaker believes incumbents running for reelection should not have to collect nominating petition signatures.

Rep. David Cook (R, current LD8) has introduced House Bill 2581 which if enacted would not impact any elections this year. His main argument is that the Legislature goes back into session in January and is still going strong when nominating petitions must be submitted.

The burden on incumbent state lawmakers, most of whom have regular jobs in addition to their legislative service, is unnecessary once they have already run for office, according to Cook, who lives in what will become LD7 when the new redistricting maps are finally in effect.