Ethics initiative falls short by more than 20,000 signatures

Published June 2, 2010 3:54 pm
Politics • Backers eye 2012; redistricting push also shy on signatures.
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The Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office issued final signature counts Tuesday for two statewide initiatives — on ethics reform and redistricting — indicating that both fell short.

"Neither qualified for the 2010 ballot," said Paul Neuenschwander, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Greg Bell.

The measure mandating broad ethics reforms for state legislators — put forward by Utahns for Ethical Government (UEG) — garnered 73,244 paper signatures (well short of the 94,552 registered voters needed statewide).

To reach the 2010 ballot, UEG, now seeking a spot in the 2012 election, also needed to net 10 percent of registered voters in the most recent gubernatorial election in 26 of Utah's 29 Senate districts. The group met that mark in nine districts.

The Fair Boundaries Coalition's redistricting measure drew 45,230 signatures and met the required level in only two Senate districts.

While Tuesday's news came as little surprise — both groups acknowledged as much in mid-April — several unanswered questions remain with Utah's initiative and referendum process.

The Utah Supreme Court is poised to hear oral arguments Wednesday about whether electronic signatures — valid for many government transactions — can be accepted to help put a candidate on the ballot.

Paradise businessman and author Farley Anderson unsuccessfully attempted to land on November's ballot as an unaffiliated candidate for governor. Of the 1,000 signatures needed, he had 960 on paper. The remainder, which would have put him over the top, were electronic.

Anderson took his fight to Utah's high court and was joined last month by the American Civil Liberties Union.

UEG also is attempting to file a brief in Anderson's case in support of e-signatures for initiatives. The group mustered about 10,000 e-signatures for its ethics push. Utah's Supreme Court can decide whether to accept UEG's brief.

Due to scattered reports of inconsistencies, UEG and the ACLU have begun to examine the tests that county clerks used to certify signatures.

Any proven irregularities could raise constitutional concerns about equal protection, said Alan Smith, an attorney and UEG backer.

"You'd be treating signatures from citizens unequally," Smith said.

One concern centered on clerks possibly overstepping their statutory authority by acting as forensic handwriting experts.

Utah County Clerk Bryan Thompson said his office had the option to cross-check handwriting on petitions with signatures found on scanned voter-registration forms.

"If it doesn't look like a true signature, we can compare it," Thompson said, noting that a few years back staffers tapped that option when several signatures looked similar.

But Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said her office limited itself to matching signed names to the statewide registered-voter database.

Both counties had an 11 percent rate of scrapped names.

Another concern focused on whether clerks in multicounty Senate districts handled those cases in similar fashion.

UEG's petition drive failed miserably in Sen. Dennis Stowell's rural District 28 (which spreads over Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard and Washington counties), where 3,534 names were needed and only 727 were certified.

While UEG supporters have relinquished any hope of getting their ethics measure on the 2010 ballot, they claim state law allows them to continue gathering the necessary signatures through Aug. 12 — for the 2012 general election.

"We've never been down this road before," Neuenschwander said. "It's an open question."

The 2010 gubernatorial election also would change the standard for how many signatures are needed, he added.

Based on an opinion from the Utah Attorney General's Office, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell advised county clerks to reject any e-signatures because the process, to date, has been paper based.

But the ACLU argues that a signature is any mark that the signing individual intends to be his or her name — whether on paper, wood or even a cow.

"Utah law provides that a signature may not be denied legal effect or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form," ACLU cooperating attorney Brent Manning said in a news release in late May.

The UEG measure — largely rejected by most lawmakers on Utah's Republican-dominated Capitol Hill — calls for, among other reforms, limits on campaign contributions.

Some consider Utah's threshold for grass-roots legislation unreachable.

"Without half a million dollars minimum — or a very large force of volunteers — the Utah Legislature has set the standards for qualifying so high that its damn near impossible," said UEG Treasurer Vik Arnold.

"We are going to get it done," Arnold added of the 2012 push. "The bad news is the numbers were slightly lower than what we expected. The good news is that now we know precisely where we need to target our efforts."


What would the ethics initiative do?

Establish an independent citizen ethics commission.

Establish an ethical code of conduct for state legislators.

Develop mandatory ethics training for all lawmakers.

Bar spending campaign funds on anything personal.

Prevent lawmakers from contributing their own campaign funds to each other's campaigns.

Bar lawmakers from serving as paid lobbyists for two years after they exit office.

Ban all lobbyist gifts except for light refreshments.

Provide written opinions to clarify gray areas for legislators.

Ban donations to legislators from corporations, nonprofits, partnerships and unions.

Cap individual contributions at $2,500 and political-action committees at $5,000 per two-year election cycle.

Source: Utahns for Ethical Government

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