Jones v. Respect the Will of the People – 08/25/2022

September 1, 2022

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two holds that a referendum petition must strictly comply with A.R.S. § 19-101(A) but may do so, despite inclusion of surplus information, if the surplusage does not alter the meaning or cause confusion, and A.R.S. § 19-121.02(A)(8) requires disqualification of all but one otherwise valid signature, rather than all but the first signature.

A county board of supervisors approved the rezoning of a portion of land. An organization filed a referendum petition opposing the rezoning and referring the matter to county voters in an upcoming election. The organization submitted signatures supporting the petition, and the county recorder certified the petition for the ballot. 

A qualified elector filed a complaint, alleging that (1) the lengthy petition did not comply with A.R.S. § 19-101(A), which prescribes the form of a referendum petition and (2) the organization obtained insufficient valid signatures to support the referendum petition. As relief, the elector requested an injunction prohibiting county officials from placing the petition on the ballot.

The trial court denied the injunction, holding that (1) the petition adequately—rather than strictly—complied § 19-101(A) and (2) sufficient valid signatures remained to qualify the petition for the ballot, even once signatures proven defective by the elector had been disqualified.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. It held that, although the trial court erred in concluding that strict compliance with § 19-101(A) was not required, the inclusion of surplus information in the referendum petition did not negate strict compliance with § 19-101(A) because the referendum petition contained the required information and the surplusage did not alter its meaning or cause confusion.

Next, the Court of Appeals turned to three of the elector’s objections over the trial court’s signature ruling. First, it rejected the elector’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to shift the burden to the organization to prove the validity of signatures listing different addresses than those recorded in voter registration records.  It explained the elector failed to show there was no genuine issue of material fact that the signatures were invalid, neglecting even to note the date of the records he compared the signatures with, so the burden of proving the signatures’ validity never shifted to the organization. Second, it rejected the elector’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion in declining to apply waiver, noting waiver “is a rule of prudence, not of jurisdiction.” Third, it rejected the elector’s proffered interpretation of § 19-121.02(A)(8) to require the disqualification of all signatures found to be duplicates but the original signature. Rather, § 19-121.02(A)(8), provides in relevant part, “[i]f a petitioner signed more than once, all but one otherwise valid signature shall be disqualified,” which the Court of Appeals reasoned does not specify which signature may survive disqualification.

Vice Chief Judge Staring authored the opinion, in which Chief Judge Vásquez and Judge Brearcliffe concurred.

Posted by:  BriAnne Illich Meeds