Gehrke: Frustrated, ignored voters are taking matters into their own hands

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Three ballot initiative, and possibly a fourth, are trying to earn a spot on the ballot. As part of the process, backers must hold public meetings, like this one for a medical marijuana initiative. Pamela Cavagnola speaks about managing her pain, from a severe car accident, with medical marijuana during the first of a series of public hearings on the proposed 2018 ballot initiative to legalize medical uses of cannabis in Utah sponsored by the Utah Patients Coalition (UPC) a coalition of patients, caretakers, and advocates. The meeting was held the Salt Lake County Building in Salt Lake City Wednesday July 26, 2017.

There’s something happening in this state that we frankly haven’t seen in a long time.

Voters, frustrated at not being heard in the halls of the Utah Capitol have had enough, and three — and very likely four — initiatives appear to be headed for the 2018 ballot. What’s more, the recent Hinckley Institute-Salt Lake Tribune poll indicates that the three filed initiatives all enjoy broad support.

Utahns overwhelmingly, by a margin of 78-20, support legalizing medical marijuana, as most other states already have done. By a nearly 3-to-1 margin, they back the creation of an independent commission to draw Utah’s legislative and congressional boundaries. And a sizable majority, 57-40, supports a proposal to impose tax hikes to bolster Utah’s underfunded education system.

In addition, backers of the 2014 County My Vote initiative, which was jettisoned after proponents struck a deal with the Legislature, are considering re-launching their effort.

Count My Vote co-chairman Rich McKeown said there have continued efforts by the Legislature to undermine the deal and other flaws that need to be fixed.

“It would be fair to say that we are running a parallel track of putting together an initiative, doing the things that would prepare us to move forward if we decide to. We have not concluded we will do that,” he said.

If they pull the trigger, it would be similar to the 2014 initiative, meaning an end to the current dual-track nominating system, ditching party nominating conventions in favor of candidates gathering signatures to advance to party primaries.

These are far from new ideas. They’ve been floating through the Capitol for years, but lawmakers have refused to meaningfully address the issues. It has sparked a surge in populism — albeit backed by deep pockets — that I don’t recall having seen in Utah since the mid 1980s when Merrill Cook made a name for himself as Mr. Initiative.

Cook said whenever he would strategize with his supporters, they would look for things the public wanted and “things that the Legislature was ignoring.” That resulted in initiative drives to repeal the sales tax on food and impose term limits, both of which failed.

So is it that same voter frustration driving the current flurry of initiative proposals?

“Absolutely,” said Cook, who went on to serve in the U.S. House. “And I think part of it is we’re too strongly a one-party state.”

The most remarkable aspect of this populist surge is that Utah is not California, where ridiculously low thresholds to get on the ballot lead to scores, sometimes hundreds, of half-baked and oftentimes contradictory initiatives put before voters in every election.

Utah’s Legislature has jealously clutched its power believing they alone have the wisdom to make laws.

They imposed thresholds that are so onerous that few initiatives make it to voters. Supporters have to gather more than 100,000 signatures spread across 26 of the 29 senate districts.

And legislators have been known to throw a wrench into the works, like when Cook’s term limits initiative appeared to be a lock for passage.

Instead, the Legislature passed term limits on their own, the initiative failed, and then the lawmakers repealed the term limits law eight years later, after the populist fervor had blown over and before a single official was term limited out of office.

“We’re a one-party state and Republicans usually, almost always, go against an initiative and, because they control the Legislature, they’ll pull out all the stops,” Cook said. “The people of Utah are not being well-served by the lack of competitive policy, meaning a Legislature that keeps doing the same thing.”

Utah was the second state in the nation to adopt an initiative law, but the rules were so stringent — people had to go to a government office to sign a petition — that the law was meaningless. After World War II, the rules loosened, and in 1960, voters approved Initiative A, creating employment protections for deputy sheriffs.

All told, 22 initiatives and referenda have made it to the ballot — like the 1968 initiative that proposed selling liquor by the drink in bars (patrons at the time had to bring their own bottles), and the 1984 initiative to censor cable television.

A total of six have passed — including two referenda repealing laws, the most recent, the 2007 school voucher repeal. The others are an anti-fluoridation initiative in 1976 and a pair in 2000 making English the official language and attempting to curb asset forfeiture in drug cases.

Carter Livingston was the leading consultant on that asset forfeiture initiative and has done others in Utah, Arizona and Nevada, and warns that, even though there is broad public support this year, the climb to the ballot is still steep.

“It is a unique moment where we have three or maybe four extremely diverse issues that are potentially going to be on the ballot, but potentially is the key word, because look at the statute. They’re high hoops, big costs, lots of logistics,” he said.

It will take money, probably millions of dollars, to get these initiatives across the finish line. But if they do, it could not only reshape the state, but it could serve as a wakeup call for legislators and elected officials, that when leaders fail to lead, the voters take matters into their own hands.