The Arizona Republic

Judge: No Labels Party can stay on state ballot, for now

- Ray Stern Arizona Republic USA TODAY NETWORK Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarep­ or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that the No Labels Party can stay on the 2024 Arizona ballot, for now, but left open a channel for Democrats to keep fighting against the independen­t movement they see as a threat.

“This is an important win for American democracy,” the group said in a statement by its national co-chair, Benjamin Chavis Jr., and former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who serves as No Labels’ director of ballot integrity. “The court’s decision to uphold the will of these voters and the laws and system protecting their rights sends a powerful message about respecting the choices of citizens and safeguardi­ng their democratic rights.”

The centrist No Labels was founded in 2010 as a political organizati­on but is now recognized as a party in Arizona and six other states. Its leaders plan to give ballot access to a third-party presidenti­al candidate if voters have no other choices but President Biden and Donald Trump.

Secretary of State Adrian Fontes granted official recognitio­n to the party in early March after backers turned in more than 41,000 valid voter signatures. The Arizona Democratic Party filed a lawsuit a few weeks later, alleging technical problems with the group’s signature-gathering process. It sought to invalidate Fontes’ verificati­on of the party and stop it from appearing on a ballot in any Arizona county.

The complaint states bluntly that the Democratic party will be “directly harmed by the unlawful recognitio­n of No Labels because it will make it more difficult to elect Democratic Party candidates.”

Democrats and political observers have said that a No Labels presidenti­al candidate likely would siphon votes from Biden, giving Trump or another Republican an edge in next year’s election.

Judge: ‘A technical defect in a petition is not fatal’

State Democrats allege that No Labels broke a state law that requires the petition for a new party to be verified by 10 voters, who each sign affidavits that must be submitted with all the collected signatures. According to the complaint, the verificati­on was improper because the affidavits were signed before the petition signatures were gathered. That meant there was no actual petition the affidavit signers could have affirmed, according to the party’s lawyers.

The lawsuit also claims that the signatures were no good because the affidavits did not match the language in the statute, stating that “the signers of the attached petitions be recognized as a new political party,” instead of sticking to the text in the law that says, “the signers thereof ...”

Judge Katherine Cooper’s six-page order dismissed the complaint, noting that petitions for political parties must be evaluated under a lens of “substantia­l compliance” with the law, which means that “a technical defect in a petition is not fatal.”

“Courts focus on whether the defect will confuse or mislead the electors signing the petition,” she wrote in the Aug 7 order. “The Complaint does not allege that the signing of the affidavits confused or misled those who signed the Petition.”

However, Cooper said she would allow the Democratic Party to file an amended complaint, or a motion to file an amended complaint, after notice of a June letter from No Labels to Fontes’ office that the new party would not participat­e in the August primary election. Democratic Party lawyers told the judge the letter confirms the petition is invalid because it “falsely told voters that it would participat­e in the primary.”

In the June 2 letter, released by Fontes’ office, No Labels argued that its lack of participat­ion in the primary and its intention not to run state candidates means it does not need to comply with Arizona campaign finance laws. Yet the petition submitted by No Labels and signed by tens of thousands of Arizona voters stated that the new party would “be represente­d by an official party ballot at the next ensuing regular primary election,” as well as the November general election.

No Labels did not immediatel­y respond to an email about the allegation.

No disclosure yet of No Labels’ donors or expenses

The lawsuit briefly mentions the campaign finance issue, stating that No Labels has reportedly raised $50 million and yet has “not publicly disclosed its donors, leaving the sources of much of its funding largely unknown.”

It’s not yet clear if No Labels has no obligation to comply with state laws that shed light on political groups and politician­s by demanding disclosure of donors and expenses. Paul SmithLeona­rd, Fontes’ spokesman, said Friday the Secretary of State’s Office could not answer the question.

The Democratic Party filed a separate complaint against No Labels with the Secretary of State’s Office last month, asking Fontes to invalidate the new party unless it discloses its donors. Smith-Leonard said the demand remains under review.

The Arizona Democratic Party isn’t yet ready to say if it will appeal Cooper’s ruling or file an amended complaint.

“We are, as always, evaluating all of our options, and will continue to fight to protect Arizonans’ right to know who is bankrollin­g this organizati­on as they inject themselves into our elections,” said Morgan Dick, the party’s executive director.

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