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Court Challenge Jeopardizes Arizona's Minimum-Wage Ballot Measure

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A Maricopa County Superior Court judge Thursday threw out a substantial number of signatures gathered in support of a voter initiative to raise Arizona's minimum wage to $12 an hour. 

Judge Joshua Rogers struck many of the signatures by default because the people who gathered them, some of whom were out-of-towners hired to canvass, did not respond to subpoenas. 

Attorneys for the Arizona Restaurant Association called in 168 circulators for questioning, but Rogers narrowed the number to 83 after determining that the subpoenas had not been served correctly.

The restaurant association alleged that the circulators weren't properly authorized to collect signatures, which would make their work inadmissible.

In some cases, lawyer Roopali Desai argued, people should have been barred from participating because they had felony records. In most other instances, the alleged infractions were more technical.

Arizona law requires residents from other states and those who are paid to collect signatures to register with the Secretary of State's Office. As part of  the registration process, they must provide an in-state address where they can be reached should the court need to contact them.

One circulator's signatures were thrown out because she failed to list her unit number when she printed the address to her apartment complex on the registration form. Another was disqualified because she listed her birth year next to her signature instead of the date she signed the document, and the form was subsequently corrected without her knowledge. In several cases, the circulator failed to list an in-state contact address, and in an apparent attempt to bring the form into compliance, the information had been scribbled in by someone else. 

Desai stressed the importance of paying attention to detail, reminding the court that "the laws are strict because we have had issues with fraud in the past." 

Bill Scheel, campaign manager for Arizona Healthy Working Families, the group behind the voter initiative, called the allegations "frivolous." He accused the restaurant association of sending out "blanket subpoenas" to circulators living outside of Arizona — not because there was anything wrong with their registration forms, but because those people were simply less likely to show up in court. 

Dozens traveled from as far as Tucson and California to testify during the eight-hour hearing. But dozens didn't make it.

It could take days to calculate how many signatures will be invalidated. Judge Rogers still is considering some of the issues raised. 

The restaurant association is challenging roughly 85,000 of the 271,883 signatures that Arizona Healthy Working Families collected. In order to get the measure onto the November 8 ballot, at least 150,642 signatures must be verified as valid — a process that will involve sending random samples to each Arizona county, where they will be checked against voter rolls.

If passed, the initiative would raise the minimum wage from $8.05 to $10 by 2017 and $12 by 2020. It would also ensure workers a minimum of 24 hours of annual paid sick leave. 

"We can't forget the bottom line here," Scheel said. "This initiative would make life better for a lot of Arizonans."

The Arizona Restaurant Association had backed a counter-initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $8.41 by 2017 and $9.50 by 2020. 

"We care about our employees," ARA spokeswoman Chianne Hewer told New Times earlier this year. "If it were up to restaurant owners, we'd love to give a million days off and holiday bonuses. But $9.50 is what's realistic."

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