Nearly half of the signatures protesting Tempe’s controversial smoking ban were deemed invalid Friday afternoon by the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, putting opponents 1,550 names shy of getting their petition on the March ballot.
After months of dissecting signatures on the petition to loosen the ban, the recorder’s office revealed its preliminary results to about 10 people on opposite sides of the smoking battle.
"It’s off, it’s off," whispered one of the ban’s proponents when he read the number of invalid signatures — 7,817.
Members of the group that started the petition — Citizens for Fair Non-Smoking Laws — were quiet as they absorbed the news that they had missed their mark of 11,358 valid signatures. Later, they were defiant.
"It looks like we have a lot of work to do," said member Sheila Dill.
Rich Bank, owner of Casey Moore’s Oyster House in Tempe and the group’s chairman, said the fight isn’t over.
"We are optimistic," he said. "The beat goes on."
The group most likely will challenge many of what Bank said are overly meticulous reasons the signatures were considered invalid. Among them are duplicate and illegible signatures and signatures accompanied by incomplete dates, which the recorder’s office considers as ’02 instead of 2002.
"We always seem to be on the short end of the stick," Bank said. "There is too much scrutiny. In an initiative like this, all you should have to hit is the target, not the bull’s-eye."
Bank said if the group can prove the recorder’s office wrong on many of the signatures and win an appeal it already has made to the Arizona Supreme Court, which previously threw out 3,400 signatures, then the number of valid signatures could exceed 11,358.
According to the data, however, the majority of the invalid signatures were signed by unregistered voters. The office found that 6,139 out of 7,817 signatures were unregistered names.
"Shame on the electorate for doing that," Bank said. "People should know not to sign a petition if they’re not registered."
Leland Fairbanks is a trustee for Arizonans Concerned About Smoking, the committee that fought to get the smoking ban passed last year and the petition examined this year. He said the results did not surprise him.
"We felt that there were so many problems with the petition, that it would not qualify for the ballot," he said.
Karen Osborne, Maricopa County director of elections, said examining the 17,625 signatures in the petition was a daunting task for the recorder’s office.
"This is one of the largest petitions that has required full certification," she said.
The results of the research will not be officially certified by the recorder’s office until later next week. After that, they will be sent to Tempe City Clerk Kathy Matz, who will either fail or file the ballot. Osborne said it is unlikely the ballot will be filed because of the large number of invalid signatures.
After the data is certified, both sides of the smoking battle have 10 days to challenge it.
Bank said Citizens for Fair Non-Smoking Laws is preparing for one of its toughest battles yet and most likely will challenge the reasoning of many of the invalid signatures.
"Our group hasn’t backed down yet and I don’t expect we will throw in the towel at the 11th hour," he said. "The only thing that makes sense is to go forward. We can still prevail."