Vox Populi, literally translates as “the voice of the people.” Every day during the 2019 legislative session, I saw that phrase on the wall above the head of the speaker of the House.
This was my first session as a member of the House of Representatives, and it was a lot to digest. The pace is exhausting, the energy is incredible and the process is intense. And every day, while trying to be the best representative for my district, I wrestled with what that phrase meant in my new role: voice of the people.
I can easily tell you what it does not mean. To me, serving as the voice of the people does not mean deconstructing successful ballot initiatives into unrecognizable new legislation. This does not uplift the voice of the people, it silences it in multiple ways.
Most obviously, the public’s voice is ignored by the very act of changing the measure they supported. More dangerously, these actions send a message that the people’s voice, and in turn, their vote, is not enough to make a difference.
In law, we refer to this as a chilling effect. By silencing the voice of the people, the chilling effect is that fewer people become involved in democracy. Less political involvement damages our form of government. In addition to the major changes to ballot initiatives, this session also saw legislation to make the ballot initiative process more complicated and less accessible. The chilling effect intensifies. If we as a Legislature are trying to get more people interested in what we do, we are failing.
I do not want to be critical without offering suggestions on how to change the process so we, as legislators, can serve as the voice of the people and involve the voice of the people in the legislative process. One obvious change would be to make it easier for people to participate in the process by providing them more time and opportunity to do so.
With only one session’s worth of experience, I could easily recognize that the best bills were the bills that came through committee. But we can and should do more: A committee hearing should be a requirement for every bill.
Committee hearings are where interested members of the public can give their opinion on potential legislation. When we suspend the rules, eliminating the requirement for a bill to go through committees, we also cut out the opportunity for the voice of the people to be heard in a meaningful way.
In order to make this feasible, the Legislature should amend the rules moving up the date that bill files can be opened without having to request permission from the chamber on the first day of the session. By moving up this deadline, the public has a greater opportunity to see what legislators are working on, and more time to digest and figure out the impact of proposed bills and convey their opinions to their elected officials.
I am certain that there are more changes to be made to the process to make sure that we in the legislature are in fact honoring and serving as the voice of the people. I commit to doing my best to serve as the voice of my district, because that is what I was elected to do. I know my colleagues are dedicated to doing the same, and I hope we can work together to make sure the people’s voice is heard through us.
Utah state Rep. Andrew Stoddard is the Murray city prosecutor, past chair of Midvale Community Council, and a longtime victim advocate. He currently represents District 44 in the Utah House of Representatives.