By Corinne Murdock |
Last week, a superior court judge ruled that Secretary of State Adrian Fontes and his predecessor, now-Gov. Katie Hobbs, enforced an Election Procedures Manual (EPM) that ran afoul of voter signature verification law. The problematic EPM in question was crafted by Hobbs in 2019.
The ruling came in the case Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Fontes. Contrary to the law, Fontes claimed to the court that the term “registration record” was ambiguous and up for interpretation — meaning, he could decide what constituted a valid signature record for the purposes of verifying the validity of a ballot signature. For that reason, Fontes said that the lawsuit against his administration should be dismissed.
Judge John Napper disagreed, rejecting the motion to dismiss last Friday; he stated that only a voter’s signature used to register to vote was valid. Napper ordered Fontes to adhere to the definition of “registration record” for the purposes of signature verification.
“Here, the langu[ag]e of the statute is clear and unambiguous. The statute requires the recorder to review the voter’s registration record. The common meaning of ‘registration’ in the English language is to sign up to participate in an activity,” wrote Napper. “No English speaker would linguistically confuse the act of signing up to participate in an event with the act of participating in the event [….] Applying the plain and obvious meaning of ‘registration,’ the legislature intended for the recorder to attempt to match the signature on the outside of the envelope to the signature on the documents the putative voter used to register.” (original emphasis included)
Fontes petitioned the court to interpret the law to mean that other documents could be included in the definition of “registration record” based on a change of the law from reading “registration form” to “registration record.” Fontes argued that “record” was a more expansive term meant to encompass a greater set of documents than “form.” Fontes also argued that the term was ambiguous and therefore up to interpretation.
Napper rejected these arguments. The judge explained that the term change only expanded the “volume of documents” for signature verification to allow for review of multiple forms comprising a registration record. Napper also declared that the statute wasn’t ambiguous at all.
“That limitation remains the same, documents are part of the ‘registration record’ only if they involved the voter’s ‘registration,’” stated Napper. “[T]he recorder is to compare the signature on the envelope to the voter’s prior registrations (the record).”
Napper also declared that the Arizona Free Enterprise Club (AFEC) correctly defined “registration record,” unlike Fontes and former Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (now governor) per her 2019 EPM. Napper ruled that Hobbs’ 2019 EPM violated the law.
“The 2019 EPM creates a process that contradicts the plain language of A.R.S. §16-550(A),” stated Napper. “Therefore, this portion of the EPM and the instruction from the Secretary do ‘not have the force of law.’”
Napper’s ruling acknowledges a major issue: in the four years of its use, Hobbs’ unlawful 2019 EPM signature verification instruction has carried “the weight of the law.”
Mi Familia Vota also intervened in the case and requested dismissal of AFEC’s lawsuit. They claimed that any real or existing issues with the EPM didn’t matter because Fontes would produce a new EPM this December that could potentially adhere to state law. Napper also rejected this argument. The judge pointed out that those in the executive branch, including Hobbs, have consistently failed to produce a valid EPM, including in 2021.
“While the production of a new EPM is statutorily required, the multiple offices of the executive branch have not consistently adhered to the statute’s dictates,” said Napper. “They were unable to produce an EPM in 2021. This is why the 2019 manual carries the force of law to this day. The Court has been unable to find any authority suggesting a case is not ripe for decision because a government actor may choose a different course of conduct in the future.” (emphasis added)
The case is ongoing, with a status conference scheduled later this month.