Arizona voters could decide if they want to curb “dark money” in state and local elections when they head to the polls next fall. But what is “dark money” and why does it matter?

A citizens initiative that aims to eliminate so-called “dirty money,” or anonymous political spending, in Arizona elections likely won’t appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

State Elections Director Eric Spencer said Tuesday that the “Outlaw Dirty Money Act” has failed to qualify for the ballot — at least temporarily — because supporters didn’t submit enough voter signatures.

But the fate of the initiative is still in limbo as supporters and opponents battle in court, vociferously arguing over the validity of thousands of signatures.

“I’d say it’s hanging by a thread,” Spencer told The Arizona Republic on Tuesday night. “Every signature counts now. I think this is going to be litigated up to the very last minute here.”

The Outlaw Dirty Money campaign submitted an estimated 2,071 fewer valid signatures than the 225,963 required for the act to appear on the ballot, according to the state.

Their proposal would amend the Arizona Constitution to make public the identity of all major campaign contributors. Anonymous donors have spent millions of dollars to influence recent Arizona elections.

RELATED: Lawsuit filed against ‘dirty money’ measure

Former Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat who is the initiative’s main proponent, said he remains optimistic that enough signatures will be restored to keep it on the ballot.

“From the moment we filed, we always knew it would be close,” he told The Republic on Tuesday night. “I think it would be premature to say that any of these numbers are final.”

The Outlaw Dirty Money campaign submitted 285,768 signatures when backers filed petitions in July. State and county elections officials — who vet a 5 percent sample of the signatures — found an estimated 61,900 were invalid.


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Why supporters are hopeful

In Arizona, citizens groups that bring initiatives to change state law must comply with a strict set of rules, and signatures can be disqualified for a host of technical reasons.

Goddard said about 20,000 signatures are being contested as the campaign tussles with opponents and elections officials in court. He’s optimistic that they will regain more than the 2,100 needed to make the ballot.

For example, Goddard said, about 6,000 signatures were improperly thrown out when the state ruled that the paid circulators who gathered them needed to be registered.

OPINION: Roberts: Outlaw Dirty Money targeted by ‘dark money’ groups

But more signatures could also be thrown out as the court fight drags out. Conservative groups have filed a lawsuit to disqualify thousands of signatures collected in support of the initiative.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the leaders of high-profile conservative political organizations that spend heavily to influence elections without disclosing their donors.

They include Andrew Clark, state director for Americans for Prosperity, a group that’s financially supported by billionaire Charles Koch. Clark didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.

Their lawsuit claims numerous petition sheets must be disqualified because they were collected by paid gatherers who aren’t registered with the state, as the law requires, or who are convicted felons.


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Goddard: Expect the poked bear to ‘roar’

On Monday, both parties spent hours arguing over the validity of those signatures in court.

Goddard said he always knew that the initiative would face fierce opposition, adding, “You don’t poke the bear and expect him not to roar. In Arizona, these dark money, dirty money operatives have had a field day.”

A final decision on the initiative’s fate is expected by no later than Aug. 30, the state’s printing deadline for election-publicity pamphlets.

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