Citizen initiatives have been kicked off the ballot this year in record numbers, and the problems could go much deeper than invalid signatures

Something went wrong.

That's what politicos from Tucson to Flagstaff are saying, as an unprecedented number of citizen initiatives have been kicked off this fall's ballot.

No one can remember the last time that any statewide initiative got booted after turning in its signatures. This year, we've already had three.

And two more initiatives nearly suffered the same fate, only to squeak by on technicalities.

Sure, the voters lose out, but the loss to the initiatives' backers is even greater. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars readying their pet projects, only to see them rejected before prime time.

"On a scale of one to 10 on the Richter scale of Arizona history, this is a 9.5," says local political consultant Jason Rose, who's not directly involved in this year's initiative process. "There is going to be massive fallout."

So what went wrong?

People will tell you that Maricopa County is the hub of this year's petition problems. They say county officials have been pickier than usual in their verifications — and they plan to prove it in court.

But there's another possibility.

All three failed initiatives hired the same Scottsdale company to gather signatures. That company, in turn, hired subcontractors, many of them firms that travel state-to-state gathering signatures.

Some of those subs have faced allegations of serious impropriety in the past. And I've talked to three local workers who allege that the subs permitted, and sometimes even encouraged, fraud.

One whistleblower says he tried to complain to initiative backers and state regulators but says no one would listen.

Now, with initiatives failing at a shocking rate, he may well have their attention.

Arizona is one of 24 states that allow "citizen initiatives." Basically, anyone who collects enough signatures from registered voters can put a question on the statewide ballot.

It's direct democracy, with surprising results. Our state Legislature would surely never approve of medical marijuana, but the people did, twice. Recently, Arizona voters refused to ban gay marriage, raised the minimum wage, and drastically curtailed the rights of illegal immigrants. Politically, we're all over the map, and that's kind of cool.

The flip side is this: What the state's populist founders saw as a way to curb special interests has instead been a boon to them.

Just look at the initiatives proposed this fall. Ward Connerly, who's successfully led crusades against affirmative action from Michigan to California, has one on the ballot here. The payday loan industry is pushing a plan to make the Legislature back off from, yep, the payday loan industry.

There's a reason you seldom see John Q. Public pushing an initiative.

To get on the ballot in Arizona, initiatives need a whopping 153,365 valid signatures. That means hiring a company to track down registered voters; you simply can't expect volunteers to collect so many.

And though this work is ostensibly the grassroots of democracy, in reality, it can be sleazy.

We've all heard the trope comparing lawmaking to sausages — the less you know about how they're made, the more respect you have for them.

Trust me on this: It's 100 percent true when it comes to signature gathering.

"When you run a signature company, you're basically a captain of the underworld," says political consultant Rose, himself no stranger to those environs. "It's a nasty, gnarly business."

Signature-gathering companies pay an army of barely regulated freelancers anywhere from $1 to $2 per signature. If a random 5 percent sample of signatures checks out with county regulators — and if the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed — the initiative goes on the ballot.

This year, the signatures aren't checking out. Failure rates in Maricopa County are at more than 40 percent.

Of the nine initiatives attempting to make the ballot, all but two hired the same Scottsdale firm, Petition Partners LLC, to gather signatures.

And those two, the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative and Majority Rules, ended up with virtually the same workforce because the initiatives all used the same subcontractors. (The civil rights initiative now faces a lawsuit from opponents trying to get it kicked off the ballot, alleging fraud on the part of signature gatherers. But don't be deceived: Every one of the initiatives trying to make the ballot used virtually the same crew on the street level.)

Some of the subcontractors most active in Arizona this summer have been linked to improprieties in other states. And three whistleblowers tell me that serious problems occurred here.

One was brave enough to put his name on the record; the other two, given anonymity, corroborated some of his more serious allegations.

Jack Bickley gathered signatures in the Valley for 10 weeks this spring. During that time, the 30-something East Valley resident claims that he witnessed systemic fraud.

He alleges:

• Misrepresentation. Bickley says his fellow circulators frequently lied to voters about what they were signing.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske