Arizona is one of the most progressive states when it comes to citizen led initiatives to create or change (and literally enshrine) laws. However, the procedure to put such initiatives to vote are largely controlled by the legislature. In its first application of the recently enacted A.R.S. § 19-102.01, the Arizona Supreme Court provided guidance on the standards of strict compliance and strict construction that now apply to petitions to place statewide initiative measures on the Arizona ballot and that command courts to strictly construe those requirements.1 Political committees, trade organizations, labor unions, and other nonprofits (within and without Arizona) will need to understand the impact of the recent Court interpretations in any campaign to put an initiative to a vote.
The controversy underlying Leibsohn v. Hobbs began when supporters of an initiative seeking to limit the influence of “dark money” in elections (the “Committee”), paid out-of-state circulators to gather signatures to qualify the initiative for the November 2022 ballot.2 These circulators are required by law to register with the Secretary of State before they begin collecting signatures or else all their signatures will be disqualified.3 To register, circulators must include (1) their “residence address” and (2) a notarized affidavit avowing their eligibility and the accuracy of their registration information.4 Challengers sought to disqualify the signatures on two grounds. First, they argued that circulators living in multi-unit housing must list their unit number in the “residence address” required for the registration application.5 Second, they argued that circulators must submit a new affidavit for each petition they intend to circulate. 6
As mentioned, Arizona law now requires that “[c]onstitutional and statutory requirements for statewide initiative measures must be strictly construed and persons using the initiative process must strictly comply with those constitutional and statutory requirements.”7 Previously, persons using the initiative process had been held to a standard of “substantial compliance" meaning “that the petition as circulated fulfills the purpose of the relevant statutory or constitutional requirements, despite a lack of strict or technical compliance.”8 The strict compliance standard, which had developed in the context of petitions for referenda, has been described as requiring “nearly perfect compliance” with constitutional and statutory requirements. 9
Against this backdrop, the Arizona Supreme Court explained that circulators do not need to include their unit number when listing their “residence address” on a registration application.The Court explained that the plain meaning of the word “residence” is “the place where one actually lives.”10 And an “address” is “a place where a person or organization may be communicated with.”11 Put together, this requires circulators to sufficiently describe where they live so they can be found to communicate with.12
However, strict construction can cut both ways. The legislature notably did not require more specific detail—like a “mailing address”—even that phrase is peppered throughout other similar statutes.13 This showed that the legislature knows that a resident address may be distinct from a mailing address and knows how to distinguish between the two. Nor was a unit number needed to serve the purpose of the statue: securing circulator availability “for court proceedings if the signatures they gather are challenged.”14 Circulators must still accept service of a subpoena at their sponsoring committees in state address and there was nothing before the Court to suggest that a process server would not be able to personally serve a circulator who did not include a unit number in his or her “residence address.” 15
Addressing the second challenge, however, the Court agreed that circulators are required to submit a new affidavit for each petition they intend to circulate.16 Committees, not circulators, are required to submit circulator registration applications.17 Putting the onus on committees disclosed an intent “that separate applications be submitted for each initiative measure, including separate affidavits.”18 In addition, circulators must avow to the accuracy of certain information—the identity of the measure, and the address of the sponsoring committee—that may change each time a circulator submits an application: their eligibility to circulate petitions.19 Because these factors are necessarily subject to change, it is impossible for circulators to attest to their future eligibility. 20
Although there was no dispute that the circulators whose petitions were at issue in Leibsohn did not strictly comply with this requirement, the Court did not disqualify the signatures in this case.21 Because the 2019 Election Procedures Manual—which carried the force of law—required circulators to submit their registrations through the Secretary of State’s online portal, and did not allow circulators to upload a separate affidavit for each petition they add to their registration, it was impossible for circulators’ registrations to comply with the relevant statutory requirements.22 To disqualify the signatures under the circumstances would “unreasonably hinder or restrict the Committee’s (and the people’s) constitutionally guaranteed right to engage in the initiative process.” 23
While some may have thought that the strict compliance standard would make it easier for challengers to bring lawsuits against the sufficiency of initiative provision, Leibsohn might now cast a shade of doubt on that initial assumption. As currently constituted, the Arizona Supreme Court appears likely not to read in requirements above and beyond the plain language of the statute—at least not lightly.
In the wake of Leibsohn, challengers should carefully consider the text of applicable statutes before bringing a challenge based on a lack of strict compliance. The Court also confirmed that the Arizona Constitution still provides a backstop: the strict compliance standard will not be enforced if doing so would unreasonably restrict the constitutional right to the initiative process. Leiboshn explains that this principle certainly includes cases where other legal requirements make strict compliance impossible. But, if applied more broadly, the principle could provide those defending the sufficiency of their petitions with some wiggle room even in the face of the strict compliance standard. Regardless, those who desire to place initiatives on Arizona’s ballots and enshrine certain policy frameworks should take heed to properly draft the proposed statute or constitutional amendment to avoid unintended consequences.