Candidates drop out, prepare for court amid petition signature challenges

A candidate challenge to state Rep. Austin Smith, R-Surprise, alleges that he forged more than 100 voter signatures on his nominating petitions.

A day after the deadline to challenge candidate nomination petition signatures in Arizona, several candidates on both sides of the aisle folded to the pressure and dropped their bids for elected office while others prepared to defend themselves in court. 

But one candidate still in the running, Republican state Rep. Austin Smith, is accused of forging signatures on his petition, a claim that, if true, puts him at risk of being disqualified from elected office for five years and possible criminal charges. 

Candidates for elected office in Arizona must collect a certain number of nomination petition signatures from registered voters they hope to represent to qualify for the ballot. 

The number of signatures required depends on which office the person is running for, but candidates typically attempt to gather about 30% more signatures than needed because it’s a given that some of those signatures will be disqualified. That might happen if a member of the public signs a fake name to a petition, if someone who isn’t registered to vote signs or if a candidate or someone collecting signatures for them forges voter signatures. 

A long list of candidates is facing challenges in court to the legitimacy of their petition signatures, but some dropped their bids soon after they were challenged. Among those who scrapped their candidacies was Democratic state Rep. Melody Hernandez, who was running for the state Senate seat representing Legislative District 8, in Tempe. 

Hernandez needed 405 signatures to make it onto the ballot, but she only collected 451 of them, and announced on Monday that she was dropping out of the race only three days after David Alger, a Republican who lost the race for the District 8 House seat in 2020, filed a court challenge to her signatures. Hernandez also ran afoul of a law that bars candidates from running if they owe more than $1,000 in late fees for not filing campaign finance reports. She owes more than $3,300 in late fees. 

“I’ve never shied away from being held accountable,” Hernandez wrote in a statement. “When it was brought to my attention this weekend that I had made mistakes impacting my ability to successfully run for election to the Senate in LD8, I knew the only right next step would be to take sole responsibility and to allow someone else to now step forward and lead.” 

Hernandez’s decision has put Democrats looking to flip the legislature to their control next year in a tight spot since no other candidates from the party have filed to run for the seat. But only hours after Hernandez dropped out, former Tempe city councilwoman Lauren Kuby announced a run for the seat as a write-in candidate. If Kuby gets at least 405 write-in votes during the July 30 primary election, she will be the Democratic nominee in November in the solidly blue district.

Hernandez did not respond to a request for comment. 

Republican Neil DeSanti, who was hoping to secure the District 2 seat in the state House of Representatives, also dropped his bid on Tuesday, shortly after his signatures were challenged. 

The Arizona Mirror previously uncovered evidence that DeSanti was likely not qualified to run for office because he never applied to have his voting rights restored after being convicted of two felonies more than a decade ago. Candidates must be “qualified electors” to run for office.

It wasn’t a Democrat who challenged DeSanti’s signatures, but Republican Precinct Committeeman Jeff Landay, who previously told the Arizona Republic that the party needs more center-right candidates and “unifying voices.” DeSanti is a loyal supporter of former President Donald Trump and has regularly posted right-wing conspiracy theories about election fraud on social media. 

Landay challenged DeSanti’s candidacy both on the grounds that he didn’t have enough qualified signatures and that the GOP hopeful can’t legally hold office because of his felonies. In his legal challenge, Landay noted that DeSanti applied to have his rights restored on April 1, the same day he filed his nominating petitions to appear on the ballot.

Others who have already dropped out of their races following signature challenges include:

  • Michael Eaton, Libertarian candidate for the Arizona House of Representatives in District 9

  • Michelle Martin, Libertarian candidate for U.S. House in Arizona’s First Congressional District

  • Mark Siarto, Libertarian candidate for U.S. House in Arizona’s Sixth Congressional District

But many other candidates whose signatures have been challenged are still in the running, with court hearings on the challenges set for later this week. 

That includes Republican incumbent state Rep. Smith, of Surprise, who Democrats have accused of personally forging nomination signatures on his petition. 

“Several of Smith’s petition sheets bear purported voter signatures that appear to have been written by the same person,” attorney Roy Herrera wrote in the challenge filing. “Many of those signatures bear a striking resemblance to Smith’s.” 

Included in the court filing were images of signatures and addresses from Smith’s nomination petition that clearly appear to have all been written by the same person, along with examples of Smith’s own signature for comparison. 

Herrera accuses Smith of forging more than 100 voter signatures. The challenge points to nine  full pages of signatures that appear forged, as well others on pages that also appear to contain real voter signatures. 

Two voters whose signatures appear on Smith’s petition, Bruce Bell and Daniel Hernandez, wrote in sworn statements accompanying the signature challenges that they never signed his petition. 

Smith did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Mirror. 

The Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee excoriated Smith in a statement on Monday for his alleged actions, calling them “egregious.” If the claims are true, they could disqualify Smith not only from the 2024 ballot, but from elected office for five years. 

The ADLCC called out Smith for touting election integrity as a top issue and calling into question the results of the 2020 election, while allegedly committing election-related fraud himself. 

“Election integrity is the foundation of our democracy,” Jim Ashurst, the Democratic precinct committeeman who filed the court challenge against Smith, said in a statement. “When an elected official attempts to lie his way onto our ballot, he attacks the system that has made our community, our state and our country so great. Voters in the West Valley and across the state deserve to be represented by a legislator who will uphold the rule of law. It’s deeply concerning that Smith has so little respect for Arizona voters. This is a betrayal of his constituents and all Arizonans and I hope Smith will be held accountable.” 

Other candidates facing signature petition court challenges, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, include: 

  • Shante Saulsberry, a Democrat running for Legislative District 13 in the state House

  • Michael D. Butts, a Democrat running for Legislative District 11 in the state House

  • Ralph Heap, a Republican running for Legislative District 10 in the state House

  • Kelli Butler, a Democrat running for Legislative District 4 in the state House

  • Nathan Gage Madden, a Libertarian running for Legislative District 25 in the state House

  • Izaak Ruiz, a Democrat running for Legislative District 11 in the state House

  • Matt Welch, a Democrat running for Legislative District 18 in the state Senate

  • Sonya Willis, a Democrat running for Legislative District 25 in the state Senate

  • Josh Barnett, a Republican running for Legislative District 2 in the state Senate

  • David Cook, a Republican running for Legislative District 7 in the state Senate

  • Christy Kelly, a Republican running for Arizona Corporation Commission 

  • Jesus David Mendoza, a Republican running for Congressional District 3 in the U.S. House 

  • Kim George, a Republican running for Congressional District 1 in the U.S. House

  • Sheila Bilyieu, a Democrat running for Congressional District 8 in the U.S. House

  • Clifford Cast, an libertarian running for Congressional District 6 in the U.S. House

  • Marlene Galan-Woods, a Democrat running for Congressional District 1 in the U.S. House

  • Arturo Hernandez, a Green Party candidate running for U.S. Senate

***UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect that Jim Ashurst is a Democratic precinct committeeman.

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