Seven standard office computers are lined up along a wall in a quiet corner of the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.
A temporary employee of the secretary’s office sits at each computer, assigned to help verify 111,540 signatures that could refer one of the most expansive school voucher laws in America to the 2018 ballot.
Behind each employee stand at least two observers. Watching. Hovering. Taking notes.
The observers, standing at their posts an arm’s length or less away from each other, want very different things. Some want the signatures to be validated; others would like to see as many signatures thrown out as possible.
Save Our Schools Arizona celebrated Tuesday after collecting over 110,000 signatures that could give Arizona voters the power to decide if SB1431 will become law, allowing all of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students to apply for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, which was previously only available to select students.
But the Arizona Secretary of State’s office is another hoop for the referendum to jump through. If the office verifies at least 75,321 signatures, the referendum will be successful.
Now groups like the American Federation for Children, Americans for Prosperity, and other school-choice advocates are observing the signature-verification process along with the SOS Arizona volunteers. There are two clearly delineated sides: One group is pro-referendum and the other is pro-voucher law.
SOS Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker worries that the pro-voucher observers could have an impact on the legitimacy of the referendum.
“Basically, the two most powerful, right-wing, billionaire, dark-money groups in the U.S. are literally sitting in the Arizona State Capitol as we speak,” Penich-Thacker said.
She met with the media at a press conference at Capitol today.
"When we got there [Tuesday], lo and behold, there were no fewer than 20 lobbyists, attornies, staff members, and volunteers from the American Federation for Children in the room on laptops with cameras," Penich-Thacker said.
SOS Arizona volunteers feel like they have to play defense to ensure their referendum isn’t tampered with. That’s why they’re staking out the signature verifiers just to make sure the pro-voucher observers aren’t saying anything that could sway the verifiers.
Jessica Wani, a volunteer for Save Our Schools Arizona, spent her summer notarizing signatures. She is now observing the signature verification and says that all of this could be avoided if the secretary of state just verified the signatures behind closed doors.
“The Secretary of State's office should tell everyone to leave so they can do their job,” Wani said.
Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan is the first in her office to open the referendum-verification process to such a wide swath of observers. Before, only the leaders of groups involved with a referendum were allowed to observe, according to spokesman Matt Roberts.
“In the past, we do this behind closed doors, but we wanted to open the process to everybody,” Roberts said. “In theory, the less mystery is involved with understanding this, the better off we are.”
Day 2 of referenda processing. In the past de-stapling was a time vampire & occurred in the "dark." Now the process is observed & is faster. pic.twitter.com/HlN68HsJKN— Michele Reagan (@SecretaryReagan) August 9, 2017
But not everyone sees it that way.
Wani said she feels Save Our Schools Arizona shouldn’t have to defend their referendum against its opponents at this point.
“It makes us uncomfortable,” Wani said of the pro-school voucher observers. “We're protecting our interest, but there are too many bodies.”
Kim Martinez disagrees. She's the Arizona communications director for the American Federation for Children, founded years ago by current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Martinez is glad she can be there to observe the process and take notes. DeVos' group is pro-voucher.
“We’ve been cycling in and out as part of our right to be observers of the signature verifying process, so we understand what's going on,” Martinez said. “If anything doesn't look right, we'll be taking notes.”
For now, the verifiers are looking to make sure all the signatures are legitimate. They are confirming that everyone who signed included their address and wrote their
Martinez and other pro-voucher volunteers are verifying these things right behind them, with a perhaps more skeptical eye. But observing and taking notes is all that they are allowed to do, according to Roberts. They can’t ask questions of employees verifying the signatures, but they can turn over their notes to an attorney to be used in future litigation.
Despite the restrictions, SOS Arizona says some of the pro-voucher observers have spoken to the Secretary of State’s temporary employees verifying the signatures.
Roberts said at the beginning of the verification process, there were a few breaches in this protocol, but this stopped when he re-explained the rule that observers could only observe.
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“When we started the process, we had a couple of observers saying something to temp employees,” Roberts said. “Our staff observed the observers asking questions of the people processing those petitions, and that’s a no go. We made that announcement plain and clear and they understand that now.”
Roberts said his office has had to establish a few extra ground rules with the over-zealous observers, including not taking pictures and limiting the number of people who could observe at one time. For instance, one group wanted more people to look over the shoulders of the signature verifiers, so the office limited it to three observers per machine, particularly because the signed petitions will be available to view online through the office.
“This is a working environment, and we’re not going to have a dozen people staring over the shoulders of this process,” Roberts said. “That’s too much. … We can’t have 20 people standing and breathing on our staff."