Candidate signature portal to be shut down ahead of deadline

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PHOENIX — Problems in the system for candidates to qualify for the ballot with online signatures may leave some of them out of the 2022 race.

And the people most at risk of failing to qualify could be those who don’t have the big donations from special interests to find a way around it, with Democrats potentially more at risk.

State election officials told Capitol Media Services they anticipate shutting down what’s called the E-Qual system for legislative and congressional candidates around the middle of March.

Only thing is, state law gives candidates until April 4 to get the signatures they need to qualify for the August primary. But they weren’t informed until early this month that the online portal would not be available for those races.

That means anyone counting on that extra time to reach their goal with online efforts is going to come up short unless they can get the balance the old fashioned way: with circulators and paper petitions.

Kori Lorick, the state elections director, said it’s simply a function of the decennial redistricting.

Last month the Independent Redistricting Commission drew new lines for the state’s 30 legislative and nine congressional districts.

A “safe harbor” provision enacted by lawmakers allows candidates for this election — and this election only — to gather the necessary signatures to get on the ballot in either their old or new districts.

Lorick said, however, the system can handle only one set of maps at a time. And, for the moment, that includes only the old district lines.

That, by itself, presents problems for candidates who, having seen the maps approved by the commission, have filed to run in their new districts. If they want to use the E-Qual system, they have to refile under their old districts.

But it's even more complex than that.

The certification of the new lines then means counties have to update their voter registration systems to show which voters live in which districts.

That is a necessary precursor to being able to sign petitions with the E-Qual system. But that, however, requires taking the E-Qual system offline to update in March.

More to the point, it won't be back up online again until after the April 4 filing deadline.

Political consultant George Khalaf said many candidates without resources to hire paid circulators count on both volunteers and the ability to get people to sign their petitions online.

“That is now a part of our campaign process, it is part of our campaign plan,” he said.

Lorick does not dispute that Katie Hobbs, who has been secretary of state since 2019, was aware of the decennial redistricting process. But she rejected questions the office should have been ready and able to handle the problem.

“The voter registration system that we have is not capable of holding multiple maps,” Lorick said.

“So it could not hold the 2020 maps and the 2022 maps and perform the same functionality it was designed to do.”

Khalaf said that still doesn’t explain why candidates weren’t notified until this past week.

“For that rug to be pulled out from underneath us at this juncture of the campaign, that’s what’s problematic,” he said.

Agency spokeswoman Murphy Hebert said there was a plan to keep the system online through April 4. But she said that was scrapped when the system to do that created even more problems, what with the numbers for the old districts reassigned by the commission to entirely new areas of the state. And that, said Hebert, created more confusion and problems than simply taking E-Qual offline in March to update the district lines.

Lorick also said any shortcomings in the E-Qual system predate Hobbs.

“The prior administration put out the RFP for the system, I believe five or six years ago and laid out the requirements for what that system should do,” she said.

Also, it didn’t anticipate redistricting. Consultant Sean Noble said that's no excuse.

“It’s 2022,” he said. “You’d think that the secretary of state’s office, which knew for years that redistricting was coming, would have had some plans in place to deal with this.”

The losers in all of this, according to consultant Kevin DeMenna, could be the candidates who are not only new to the process but political outsiders.

“They’re not as intimately familiar with the system,” DeMenna said. “They may slip through the cracks. There may not be a way forward for these less sophisticated candidates.”

Noble said that he thinks this will not be as much of a problem for Republicans.

He said GOP contenders recognize their followers are probably more suspicious of providing information on government-operated computers. So Noble said they’re more likely to rely on the tried-and-true method of sending people out with clipboards.

Political issues aside, there’s also a legal question here.

Lorick acknowledged Arizona law requires the secretary of state to provide a system for people to be able to sign nominating petitions. But she said that doesn’t mean Hobbs is breaking the law.

“The fact that E-Qual may need to be offline for a period of time for updates to the system due to redistricting is kind of beyond the control of our office,” Lorick said.

“It doesn’t amount to a violation of the statute,” she said. “It’s just a temporary offline period to make sure we are only allowing eligible voters to sign petitions.”

The problem is having ripple effects for Hobbs, one of the Democrats running for governor this year, whose campaign already was buffeted by a Senate staffer winning a $2.7 million racial discrimination and retaliation judgment last year based on actions she took as Senate minority leaders.

Steve Gaynor, a Republican contender for governor, called the issues with E-Qual “an absolute injustice.”

“Secretary Hobbs has failed to ensure the integrity of our elections by creating roadblocks to participation,” he said in a prepared statement.

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