Activists who have battled state rules that make it tough to use voter referendums to overturn new laws passed by the Legislature have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s limits on who may initiate such ballot drives.
State law now requires that applications to start referendums be filed by at least five registered voters who participated in a general election within the past three years.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for Utah says the state rejected a petition seeking to challenge two new laws because one of the applicants, Morris Maxfield, is an 18 year-old-voter who just registered to vote and by law could not have participated in any election.
It said two other petitioners, Daniel and Lori Newby, were rejected because they were not registered to vote, and they contend the state had erroneously erased their registration. It said in recent years they chose not to vote in general elections because they were disenchanted with partisan politics but want to participate in referendums seeking to overturn new laws.
The lawsuit says state rules that blocked them as sponsors of a referendum unconstitutionally violate their right of political speech. “Associating with other like-minded individuals to advance political causes and to engage together in political speech is a fundamental right,” it said.
They ask the court to declare their application valid and allow them now to attempt to gather enough signatures — with the same time limits they would have previously faced — to put on the ballot a referendum to defeat two laws passed this year.
The laws they hope to challenge are SB220, criticized by housing advocates in debates as a tool to help landlords evict tenants, and SB83, which gives campaigns access to private Utah voter information.
The lawsuit was filed by the three individuals who signatures were rejected, and by Steven Maxfield who has led several referendum fights — including an also-rejected one against tax reform passed in a special session last December, which resulted in another lawsuit.
However, a separate group led by former Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, proceeded with a drive against the tax reform that was close to success in its efforts to collect more than 130,000 signature needed to put the referendum on the ballot. Acknowledging that, and the unpopularity of its tax reform, the Legislature itself quickly repealed the law.
Maxfield also waged an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the Legislature after it repealed and replaced a voter-passed initiative on medical marijuana. He said the high number of required signatures and short time to gather them or even file an application make the constitutional guarantee of referendums virtually meaningless.