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Arizona Secretary of State says Democrats can't keep No Labels Party off ballot

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- The state's top election official is asking a judge to toss a bid by his own political party to keep potential competitors off the 2024 ballot.
In new legal filings, the attorney for Secretary of State Adrian Fontes said there is no legal basis for the Arizona Democratic Party to challenge his decision that the No Labels Party meets all the legal qualifications to run candidates under its banner. Craig Morgan said the mere fact that the Democrats are concerned about competitors hardly gives them standing to sue.
Beyond that, Morgan told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper that the Democrats failed to prove their claims that the petitions submitted by backers of No Labels for political party status were legally deficient.
With the new filing, Fontes, a Democrat, joins the effort by attorneys for the No Labels Party to have Cooper kick the challenge to the curb.
The bid by No Labels for ballot status is part of its efforts to put presidential candidates on the ballot.
Its web site says it is creating what it called an "insurance plan that would allow a Unity ticket to run in 2024 if the two parties select unreasonably divisive presidential nominees,'' terms it does not define.
A third-party contender could have implications for Democrat Joe Biden in 2024, particularly in Arizona. He only narrowly edged out Donald Trump by 10,457 votes in 2020.
Maryanne Martini, a spokeswoman for the organization, said it now has ballot status in four states including Arizona. She said that should reach around 20 by the end of the year, with the goal of nationwide status next year.
In Arizona, that has come with resistance from the Arizona Democratic Party which is trying to keep No Labels candidates off the ballot.
Its lawsuit cites what the party says are a series of legal flaws in the petitions filed with Fontes seeking certification and ballot access. That includes everything from wording discrepancies in the paperwork to allegations that people were attesting to signatures on those petitions before others had actually signed the papers.
But there's also the concession that having No Labels on the ballot "will make it more difficult to elect Democratic Party candidates.''
Whatever the reason, Morgan said in his new filing on behalf of Fontes the Democratic Party has no legal standing to challenge his decision.
He acknowledged there are laws allowing someone to challenge a specific candidacy for reasons like the person's paperwork is incomplete or he or she is unqualified to run. But Morgan said there is no similar provision for a third party lawsuit on decisions made by the secretary of state to certify a party for ballot status.
"No Arizona court has held that an established political party or its elector can challenge the secretar's assessment of a new political party petition,'' he told Cooper.
More to the point, Morgan said, the law is clear. He said applications for recognized status need to contain a certain number of names of registered voters.
In this case, No Labels submitted petitions with nearly 57,000 signatures. The law then requires that a random sample then be checked by election officials in each count.
That review found 41,663 were valid, exceeding the statutory minimum of 34,127.
Morgani said that ends the matter. He said the law says that if a random sample shows that the threshold is met "the party shall be recognized.''
"The Legislature could have opted for something different but did not,'' he said. "And this court is not the place for a party to rewrite the law.''
Morgan also said there's no basis for the claim that the petitions should be rejected because the circulators signed verification affidavits before all the signatures had been gathered on each.
"There is no such express requirement,'' he said.
What the law does require, said Morgan, is that the circulators certify that this is a petition for a new political party, not that they actally witnessed the people signing the petition.
"Any verification of the 'integrity' of a petition is done by public officials,'' he said, and not the circulators or others. And here, too, Morgan said, if the Arizona Democratic Party wants something different "their remedy for change lies with the Legislature, not with this court.''
In his own filing, David Rosenbaum, attorney for No Labels, told Cooper the issue is even more basic than that.
"Plaintiffs do not challenge the veracity of those signatures,'' he said. Nor, Rosenbaum said, are the Democrats saying that the petition was defective in its form.
And that, he said, leaves unchallenged the fact that more than enough signatures were submitted to form a new party.
What remains, Rosenbaum said, is an effort by Democrats "to silence 41,000-plus Arizonans'' over alleged technical deficiencies "all to spare plaintiffs the inconvenience of competition.''
The Democrats have one other key objection.
Roy Herrera, attorney for the Democrats, said the No Labels Party is organized under a section of the Internal Revenue Code as a "social welfare'' organization. What that status also means, he said, is that the No Labels Party is not required to disclose its contributors, a requirement that exists in state law for other recognized political parties in Arizona.
Martini did not dispute the essence of that complaint that, as a social welfare organization, it isn't required to disclose the names of its donors. But she said that is justified.
"We live in an era where agitators and partisan operatives try to destroy organizations they don't like by attacking and intimidating their individual supporters,'' she said.
But Rosenbaum, in his legal filing, told Cooper none of that legally matters.
"None of those allegations is relevant to whether a political party can be recognized under Arizona state law,'' he said. And Rosenbaum said courts have never held that an organization seeking ballot status without a specific candidate in mind -- the current position of No Labels -- has to be a political party subject to various disclosure laws.
With Fontes' certification -- assuming it is not overturned by the courts -- No Labels became the fourth party certified for ballot status along with Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians. The Green Party lost its certification because it did not get at least 5% of the vote in the last gubernatorial election and did not submit sufficient signatures to retain its ballot status.
On Twitter: @azcapmedia