‘Dark money’ vote looking as if it won’t happen

In an extensive ruling, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanders rejected arguments by attorney Kim Demarchi that Secretary of State Michele Reagan had improperly and illegally disqualified some petitions submitted in July. Reagan was at the Mohave County Republican Picnic in July. (Photo by Vanessa Espinoza/Daily Miner)

In an extensive ruling, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanders rejected arguments by attorney Kim Demarchi that Secretary of State Michele Reagan had improperly and illegally disqualified some petitions submitted in July. Reagan was at the Mohave County Republican Picnic in July. (Photo by Vanessa Espinoza/Daily Miner)

PHOENIX – A new court decision Thursday has left backers of a ban on “dark money’’ even further from their goal of getting the measure on the ballot.

In an extensive ruling, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanders rejected arguments by attorney Kim Demarchi that Secretary of State Michele Reagan had improperly and illegally disqualified some petitions submitted in July. Sanders said Reagan acted within what the law requires when petitions do not conform with legal requirements.

And Demarchi failed to convince Sanders that she should require Reagan to count the signatures on petitions submitted by people who foes of the initiative argued were not legally qualified to circulate them.

Attorney Kory Langhofer who represents initiative foes had alleged that some of the circulators were convicted felons while others had failed to provide legally required addresses. But Sanders did not have to specifically address whether those claims were true.

She pointed out that Langhofer had issued valid subpoenas for each of the people whose eligibility to circulate petitions was in question. When they did not show up in court, Sanders said she had no choice under Arizona law but to declare that all signatures collected by each of them could not be counted.

A few of the claims over whether signatures should be counted did, in fact, go Demarchi’s way. But she conceded that the number of signatures that the judge disqualified exceeded the number she ordered restored to the count.

Demarchi said she was still tallying the numbers. But Langhofer said he believes the ruling, unless overturned, leaves initiative proponents about 8,000 short of what they need.

The ruling is the second bit of bad news for the initiative in as many days. On Wednesday, Reagan said the random sample of signatures reviewed by the 15 county recorders showed the measure came up 2,071 short of the 225,963 valid signatures needed to put the issue on the November ballot.

The initiative is designed to overturn various laws enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature that allow certain groups to influence state and local political races without disclosing their donors.

It would put a provision in the Arizona Constitution spelling out that the identity of any individual who gave at least $2,500 must be listed on financial disclosure reports. Failure to comply would result in a fine equal to three times the amount that was at issue.

Langhofer represents officials involved with several of the “social welfare’’ groups that now are exempt from disclosure but would be subject to it if the initiative were to pass.

Thursday’s ruling does not end the legal battle.

Aside from Demarchi’s lawsuits against county recorders, she is challenging the constitutionality of two laws that put additional hurdles in the path of those trying to put measures on the ballot.

The larger issue is a 2016 law that requires all initiative petitions to be in “strict compliance’’ with each and every election law. Prior to then, courts had ruled that petitions need be only in “substantial compliance’’ with the law.

Demarchi argued that the Republicans who approved the change were interfering with the constitutional right of people to propose their own laws.

But Sanders pointed out the “substantial compliance’’ standard is not in the Arizona Constitution but instead strictly a court interpretation. She said that means state lawmakers were free to alter the standard without infringing on the rights of the courts.