When the state of Utah closed the door to democracy, Salt Lake City opened a window.
The local chapter of the national Move to Amend organization the outfit dedicated to getting big money out of American politics had gathered enough signatures on its petitions to have an advisory question placed on the ballot in the city. The same question that is being presented to the voters of 164 other U.S. cities, it asks for support for the idea that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case be effectively overturned by declaring that corporations are not people and that money is not speech.
The ballot measure was only intended to be a sense of the community resolution, something to encourage elected officials at all levels to work toward a day when the corrupting influence of large campaign donations can at least be curbed.
But in Utah, that's a problem.
According to an interpretation of state law shared by the city's attorney and the Utah Supreme Court, the initiative process for placing questions on a city's ballot is only open to matters where the passage of said measure would result in a new law. There is no mechanism for advisory questions.
Members of the City Council could easily have shrugged, said it was out of their hands, and sent Move to Amend on its way. But they were more in tune with their constituents than that.
Tuesday, the Salt Lake City Council unanimously adopted an ordinance that will lay out the process by which such questions can be put to the voters.
The ordinance will allow the process to begin one of two ways: either the same sort of petition familiar from state law, or a resolution passed by the council itself. Each time such a resolution would be placed before the voters, the council would decide whether to go the traditional polling place/ballot route, or to conduct the poll by telephone, online, or some combination of the above. That could both keep costs down and increase participation.
There are a couple of hurdles ahead. One is to make sure that, if a nontraditional method of voting is used, the system can't be hijacked and that individuals cannot vote more than once. The other would be to resist any temptation to bombard the citizenry with all manner of questions, resolutions, dreams and condemnations that would, after awhile, undercut the meaning of any individual measure.
But the members of the City Council and their staff are to be praised for creating a new way for the people to have their say.