Lawmakers advance bill aiming to put limits on paid signature gatherers for ballot initiatives

‘This would take away our ability to do a referendum,’ say opponents of the bill.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Signed tax referendum petitions at the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Utah lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday that would place limits on the use of paid signature gatherers in ballot initiative or referendum efforts.

It may get more difficult to place a citizen initiative or referendum on the ballot under a bill advanced by a Utah House committee on Tuesday. The proposal limits the ability of organizers to use paid signature gatherers but does not impose those same restrictions on political candidates who pay to collect signatures to get on the ballot.

It’s already quite difficult to obtain enough signatures to place a statewide initiative or referendum on the ballot. Organizers must gather signatures equal to 8 percent of the total number of active voters in the state. Additionally, they must reach that 8 percent threshold in 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts.

HB136 blocks companies from paying signature gatherers per signature, which is the typical arrangement. Instead, it mandates those workers be paid hourly. Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-West Jordan, the bill’s author, argued his proposal helps deter fraud and brings more transparency to the signature-gathering process.

“I think we have an obligation in the Legislature to make sure that these initiatives and referendums are conducted in such a way that Utah residents can make an informed decision before signing a petition,” he said.

His proposal seeks to accomplish this in a number of ways. First, he’s seeking to block signature-gathering companies from paying their employees per signature and mandate they pay an hourly rate.

“Those businesses that actually collect signatures say when they hire employees, those who are paid hourly are less motivated than those who are paid by the signature,” he said. “What it really does is take away from the business the responsibility of vetting those employees. If they can just pay them by the signature, they can hire as many people as possible. This will require them to be a lot more judicious.”

The bill also requires those employees to wear a name badge indicating they are being paid for circulating the petition along with an individual identification number.

“The person that is deciding whether or not to sign a petition should be aware of what’s being said to them may be influenced by receiving payment at their employment,” said Teuscher. “Just like when you show up at a car dealership, you know the person is trying to sell you a car.”

Teuscher’s bill also requires signature gatherers to have either a physical or digital copy of the initiative that they must present to voters and wait for them to read it before allowing them to sign.

The freshman lawmaker also is sponsor of another controversial election law change — one that would prohibit a voter from switching their political party affiliation in an election year.

Supporters say the proposal is driven by the worry out of state groups will come to Utah and have undue influence over the state’s politics.

“Too often, efforts largely funded by California or Washington, D.C., step in to undermine the policymaking process, pushing you right out of the picture,” said Chase Martin, legal affairs director for the right-wing Foundation for Government Accountability, based in Florida.

But, opponents argued the stricter requirements would hurt ordinary citizens.

“You are tying people’s hands so they can’t do what the law allows legislators to do, which is use signature gatherers to go around and get themselves on the ballot. You’re holding the public to a higher standard than you have for yourselves,” said Diane Christensen.

“The grassroots would be denied our constitutional right to petition our government because we can’t make it happen without paying for signature gathering. This would absolutely take away our ability to do an initiative or referendum. Our hands are already tied. This would be the final hit,” complained Kim Santiago.

Utah voters approved three ballot measures in 2018 that legalized the use of medical cannabis, expanded Medicaid statewide under the Affordable Care Act and established an independent redistricting commission. Lawmakers repealed and replaced all three of those voter-approved items.

The most recent referendum effort aimed at overturning the Legislature’s massive tax reform bill they passed in late 2019. Organizers successfully collected enough signatures to put that issue on the ballot, but lawmakers repealed the bill before it went to a public vote.

Teuscher’s bill passed out of committee on an 8-3 vote and now heads to the full House.