The two initiative petitions that sought to reform ethics in the Legislature and the redrawing of political boundaries fell far short of the 95,000 signatures necessary to qualify them for the 2010 general election ballot. That again raises the question of whether that signature requirement is so high that it severely handicaps the constitutional power of the people to propose laws through the initiative process.
The answer, clearly, is yes.
In the wake of well-known scandals involving legislators and with the push of a highly organized signature-gathering campaign, the Utahns for Ethical Government were able to collect 73,244 signatures of registered voters. Yet that is some 21,000 less than the 94,552 that were required.
Not only that, but the petitioners also did not meet the geographical distribution standard. The law requires that sponsors collect signatures equal in number to 10 percent of the vote cast for governor in the previous general election. That's where the 94,552 comes from. That standard must be met in 26 of the state's 29 Utah Senate districts. UEG cleared that hurdle in only nine districts.
The story was even bleaker for the Fair Boundaries initiative, which collected 45,230 certified signatures and met the distribution standard in only two Senate districts.
But suppose, for example, that the law required signatures equal to 5 percent of the vote for governor, rather than 10 percent. That's the standard in California and Colorado. It's high enough to eliminate frivolous proposals. Under it, the Utah legislative ethics proposal would have qualified for the ballot. The Fair Boundaries petition, by contrast, would not.
Twenty-four states allow the people to propose laws through initiatives. In Idaho, the standard is 6 percent of qualified electors and there is no distribution requirement. Oregon requires 6 percent of votes cast for governor. Washington requires 8 percent with no distribution requirement. Nevada and Arizona have 10 percent standards similar to Utah, but Arizona does not have a geographic distribution requirement.
If the initiative power is to have any real meaning, the Utah Legislature must set the bar lower for total signatures. Otherwise, only those groups with enough money to hire professional signature gatherers will have access to the ballot. Or, the Legislature should allow collection of electronic signatures. By failing to do either, the Legislature is thumbing its nose at the Utah Constitution and the power reserved there for the people to propose new laws.