Group files petitions to block new election law

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX (AP) -- A group opposed to a sweeping Republican-backed election law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in June filed more than 146,000 petition signatures Wednesday that will block the law temporarily and refer it to voters next year if the signatures are certified.

The filing includes far more than the 86,405 signatures the coalition that formed Protect Your Right to Vote needed.

House Bill 2305 was passed in the last hours of the legislative session over the opposition of Democrats. They called it a thinly veiled effort to keep Republicans in power by creating new hurdles for low-income voters and some candidates.

"It's not every day that voters get to refer a bad piece of legislation to the ballot," said Julie Erfle, the group's chairwoman. "HB2305 and the politicians who voted for it managed to galvanize one of the largest and most diverse coalitions in our state's history."

Supporters say the law cleans up early-voting rolls, evens the playing field for third-party candidates and will ensure quicker election results.

"I think this bill is getting way overblown, that's it's being blown out of proportion by groups that are actually using it as a rallying cry and to increase their fundraising base," said Sen. Michele Reagan, a Republican who championed the bill. "It's a solid bill and what people are complaining about is prohibited in every other state, and I fail to see the claims that this is anything nefarious."

Elections officials will check the signatures for validity. Matt Roberts, spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Bennett, said the law won't go into effect as scheduled Friday if it appears the group has filed close to the number of signatures they need.

"Common sense would indicate it would not be in effect," Roberts said. "But again, people have litigated issues like these quite often."

The Secretary of State and county election officials will need to verify the signatures, and if the count meets the requirements, the hold will stay until the November 2014 general election.

The legislation seeks to trim Arizona's permanent early voting list and limit who may return mail ballots for voters. It also ups the number of signatures third-party candidates must gather to appear on the ballot, among a host of other provisions.

Democratic lawmakers, voting rights groups and third-party politicians had fought the measure.

"It is pernicious, it is in many ways much worse the (recently adopted) North Carolina law, which has gotten all the press," said Bill Roe, chairman of the state Democratic Party.

On a national level, the third-party candidate signature change could help push the state's three swing districts into the GOP column. Democrats won Arizona's 1st and 9th Congressional districts in 2012 by smaller margins than Libertarian candidates earned.

"This is an attempt to pressure Libertarians to vote Republican," said Barry Hess, vice chair of the state Libertarian Party. "But they really have got it screwed up, because they really didn't invite any Libertarian support, they invited Libertarian active opposition, and that's what they're going to get."

Many Republicans believe those Libertarian voters may have ended up in the GOP column, although not all agree.

"Most Libertarians wouldn't vote for Republicans," said former state Sen. Ron Gould, a Republican who signed the petition calling for a referendum on House Bill 2305. "The real fear is the Republicans don't like the Republican candidate so they vote for the Libertarian in protest."

He said the answer for the GOP, rather than changing the rules, is to field better candidates.

Democrats were concerned the legislation targeted their get-out-the-vote efforts and were furious when Brewer signed it into law.

Arizona's 15 elected county recorders had urged Brewer to sign the bill, noting that 58 percent of all provisional ballots cast in 2012 were from voters who received early ballots in the mail.

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