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Right to initiative

Published August 19, 2012 4:45 pm

Legislature has gutted it
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Utah Constitution vests the power to make laws in both the Legislature and the people. The people exercise that power directly through the initiative process. They gather enough signatures to place a proposal on the ballot, and if a majority of the voters approves it, the measure becomes law. But the Legislature writes the laws that set the rules for initiatives, and the Legislature has made those rules so onerous that it is extremely difficult for sponsors to get a proposal on the ballot.

What can be done?

Proponents of the initiative process could persuade a majority of the Legislature to pass a law making the rules of the game easier, but that is unlikely. Every time the Legislature has acted on the matter in the last couple of decades, it has made the rules more difficult.

The constitution could be amended to provide different rules. But that, too, is unlikely because the only way the constitution can be amended, short of a constitutional convention, is through propositions that win approval of two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature.

However, an initiative petition could propose new laws to govern the procedures for initiatives. Of course, for such an initiative to succeed, the sponsors would have to leap the high procedural hurdles that the Legislature has erected under the current law. But if the standard for the total number of signatures, or the standard for distribution of those signatures across the state, or both, could be made easier, that might open the way for other initiatives in the future. Allowing electronic signatures also would change the game.

The ideal balance would be to keep the standards high enough to discourage frivolous initiatives but allow serious ones.

Today, petitioners must gather signatures equal to 10 percent of the total Utah vote for president in the previous election (96,232). That standard must be met across 26 of the state's 29 state Senate districts. In addition, the state does not now recognize electronic signatures, even though it allows people to register to vote online.

Utah's 10 percent standard is one of the tougher ones among the 24 states allowing initiatives. In California it's 5 percent, in Oregon it's 6 percent, in Washington it's 8 percent. Arizona, like Utah, has a 10 percent quota but no geographical distribution requirement. Idaho's is 6 percent of registered voters. Nevada's 10 percent is similar to Utah's.

By making the rules so tough, the Utah Legislature has gutted the initiative right. Unless the courts recognize that fact, and overturn it, the situation is unlikely to change.




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