Changing the World

Phoenix Magazine – October 2017

Mike O’Neil

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead

Six Arizonans who did not know one another kept running into one another at legislative hearings about Education. Mostly, they didn’t like what they heard. Especially when the legislature passed an expansion of student vouchers; which they saw this as pilfering money from already grossly underfunded public schools.

They decided to do something about it.

They reasoned what the legislature did would never pass muster with Arizona voters who have seen Arizona rated as 49th or 50th in its support for public education–even before vouchers would further reduce that funding. So, they decided to go about putting the matter to a public vote.

As we have written in this column, Arizona has a firm constitutional provision permitting citizens to force a vote on any law passed by the legislature. But getting on the ballot is not easy. In fact, it requires over 75,000 “valid” signatures to force such a vote. These signatures are required to pass muster by a “strict compliance” standard, not the looser “substantial compliance” standard which legislators have applied to their own nominating petitions. This means they would need to submit more than 100,000 signatures to survive the petition challenges for minor technical infractions.

“Normally” this is accomplished by paying petition circulators to collect the signatures. Need 100,000 signatures? Easy, get a fat cat or organization to write a check for from $500,000 to $1,000,000 and you are on the ballot. Mission accomplished.

Whether due to principle or to the absence of an available fat cat, this small group committed to getting on the ballot with volunteer effort, without employing paid signature gatherers. Every political pro I spoke to said this would never happen. Why? Well, because, in the memory of these experts, no referendum or citizen initiative had ever been successfully put on the ballot by volunteers. Most thought it was an effort worthy of Don Quixote. (My memory is that the Mecham recall was a possible exception, but that was neither an initiative nor a referendum, and it was rendered moot by his impeachment and conviction.)

But this was a group of citizens, not political pros. No one told them their task was impossible. So, they organized themselves as “Save Our Schools” and proceeded.

They collected over 111 thousand signatures in the blistering heat of the Arizona summer – and did so on an almost entirely volunteer basis. (In the last two weeks, after collecting about 100 thousand signatures using volunteers, they relented and hired paid circulators to collect the last 10 thousand cushion. Much of that funding from that came from exhausted volunteers who asked if they could donate in lieu of further work).

So how did they do it? According to Dawn Penich-Thatcher, spokesperson for the group (and one of the Gang of Six), “People had been hearing about education funding, the concern was there, the time was right”. Social media helped. Their Facebook page has over 4,000 followers. SOS Arizona has 875 Twitter followers. These were leveraged to recruit about 3,000 volunteers who passed petitions. 3,000 volunteers could collect 111 thousand signatures if each averaged just 37 signatures. That doesn’t seem so quite so daunting a task. Of course, such efforts are never accomplished evenly; the group reports that one volunteer personally collected 1,500 signatures.

And, according to SOS Arizona, most were engaged politically for the first time. As one reported: “This is the first time I’ve ever done anything but vote”.

Those who had done petition gathering before reported that this was about the easiest “sell” they had ever encountered. Most people were happy to sign, and few were hostile. Many were highly concerned about depleted public education funding.

Those same political pros who said that a volunteer group would never get that many signatures now think that volunteers would never collect signatures as accurately as would paid gatherers. The signatures have to go through two screenings, one by the Secretary of State, and the second more rigorous check by individual County Recorders. The Secretary of State only tossed about 3,000 signatures. About 70% of the remaining signatures must be validated for the effort to qualify for the ballot. An anecdotal observation by a Secretary of State worker may be a harbinger of what they are likely to find in the second stage: “My God, these are PRISTINE.” It looks like volunteer workers didn’t want their efforts to be for naught and were meticulous.

And if the effort does survive the “strict scrutiny” signature checks and makes it to the ballot it will likely be opposed by out of state “pro-voucher” interest groups with a multimillion dollar budget. That kind of money invested in mass advertising can do a lot to change public perceptions. But I wouldn’t count this group out. They’ve already done the impossible once.


Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.