Citizens’ Rights Safe in Many States as State Legislatures End Sessions

Tue, May 18 2010 by Anonymous

Of the 45 states whose legislatures hold sessions in 2010, 27 of them have adjourned for the year, and 5 more will wrap up before the end of the month. Of the more than 80 bills dealing with the initiative and referendum process in various states, 51 of them would have reduced citizens’ initiative rights. Thanks to the work of activists in our coalitions, only 3 bills reducing citizen’s rights have passed and become law.

One measure that will reduce citizen rights has been referred to the November ballot for the citizens to vote on. Two more bills have passed legislatures and are awaiting state governors to take action. On the other hand, three bills expanding or protecting citizens’ rights have become law so far this year.

Through hard work and determination, our coalitions beat back 36 bills that would have harmed citizens’ petition rights. Seventeen bills that reduce citizen rights are still pending, and those coalitions are busy educating legislators and the public on the value of an open and accessible initiative process.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of 2010 is that there were over 20 bills submitted by legislators to expand or protect the ability of citizens to petition to put laws on the ballot. Though most of these bills were defeated or blocked, in previous years it has been rare for there to be any serious legislation to simplify the petition process or ease restrictions.

Of the 36 bills stopped by initiative rights activists, most fell into the same few categories: requiring petition circulators to register with the state to circulate petitions, restricting how initiatives are financed and requiring more onerous campaign finance reporting, requiring that signatures be considered a public record, and restricting where signatures can be collected. Since the Citizens in Charge and the Foundation came onto the scene in 2009, there has been a noticeable drop in bills to restrict who can circulate a petition, requiring petition circulators to be state residents, and banning paying petition circulators according to the number of signatures they collect.  Federal and state courts have repeatedly found that restrictions on petition circulators infringe on free speech rights and therefore violate the constitution. Citizens in Charge Foundation and our coalition partners have been very aggressive in educating legislators about these unconstitutional restrictions.

Arizona legislators were unsuccessful in their efforts to gut the state’s popular Voter Protection Act – which prevents the legislature from changing laws made by the people without putting the issue back to voters. Several plans for eliminating, suspending or eviscerating voter protection were floated, along with others that would have revoked funding from programs created through initiatives. As a testament to pro-initiative activists in the Arizona, none of these bills passed. However, the legislature placed a measure on the November ballot that would reduce the time to collect signatures by two months. Two bills expanding voter rights passed in Arizona: one adjusted the timeline for submitting ballot arguments to reflect a change made last year in the primary election schedule; another created a process by which initiative proponents can get feedback on the language of their initiative from the legislative council.

Washington state legislators pushed several initiative-related bills. Proposals ranged from requiring paid, but not volunteer, signature collectors to register with the state to raising the initiative filing fee by 500% to a constitutional amendment to completely do away with Washingtonians’ petition rights. Additional bills would have capped the salary of petition drive managers – at no more than a state legislator makes – and required people circulating petitions to stay 25 feet away from store entrances (the same distance that smokers must observe). A coalition of activists from across the political spectrum gave Olympia a firm message to leave the initiative process alone, and as a result none of these bills even made it out of committee this session. One Washington bill would have expanded voters’ rights by prohibiting their signatures from being arbitrarily removed from a petition by election officials. Unfortunately, it too was blocked.

In Wyoming, petition rights were expanded when the legislature extended the time to circulate a local petition for referendum from 10 days to 20 days.

Colorado’s legislative session expired before a constitutional amendment could be pushed through the General Assembly that would have severely reduced the ability of citizens to amend their constitution through an initiative petition. The amendment would have required citizen initiated constitutional amendments to receive 60% of the vote in order to pass, but would not have placed the same constraint on amendments proposed by the legislature. Thanks to much testimony and dedicated efforts to educate lawmakers, our transpartisan coalition was able to prevent this bill from passing. Those who follow the initiative process will remember that in 2009 the legislature passed a bill banning the payment of petition circulators by the signature, requiring them to be state residents, and instituting a host of other restrictions. That law is currently being challenged in federal court.

Voters in Utah saw their legislature pass laws to give opponents of an initiative an unfair advantage over supporters and allow courts to bottleneck initiative cases. One bill gives opponents of an initiative 30 days after petition signatures are turned in to contact signers and convince them to remove their signatures. Another bill removed legal deadlines requiring the state supreme court to rule on challenges to an initiative in a timely manner, effectively giving the court a “pocket veto” should they refuse to decide the case until after the election has passed.

Maine’s legislature passed a bill that forces people who circulate petitions to register with the state prior to circulation, effectively forcing activists to get permission from the state to petition the state. Several much more severe provisions were taken out of the bill before it passed, thanks to the work of activists in our coalition.

A bill in Maryland would have brought the state’s requirement for a valid signature – the strictest in the nation – into line with the criteria used in most states: if a registered voter signed a petition, their signature counts. Unfortunately, the bill stalled late in the session.

After passage in the House, a public uproar ignited by our broad coalition in Missouri resulted in the sponsor pulling his bill from consideration in a Senate committee. The legislation would have required petition circulators to be state residents, prohibited them from being paid by the signature, and outlawed the circulation of more than a single petition at one time. Other legislation to restrict the petition process was also defeated. Legislation to clean up the timetable for legal challenges to an initiative’s ballot title and fiscal impact assessment also stalled after passing through a Senate committee. The bill was designed to prevent the Missouri Secretary of State and/or opponents from using legal tactics to delay and ultimately run out the clock on petition efforts.

A Nebraska bill would have set up a system by which voters could electronically sign petitions through the Secretary of State’s website, making access to petitions easier. Another bill there would have increased the number of signatures needed to qualify a constitutional amendment for the ballot. Neither of these bills made it out of committee, but both will likely be back next year.

Of the 24 states that do not recognize statewide initiative or referendum rights, 12 of them saw bills that would have created some form of statewide petition process. These states include Alabama, Delaware, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont and West Virginia.

With 18 state legislatures still in session, the 2010 legislative year is certainly not over yet. Major initiative states, including California, Michigan and Ohio have legislatures that are still in session. One bill pending in Ohio would require petition circulators to register with the state, and another would amend the constitution to require a 67% supermajority for future citizen constitution amendments. In California a bill is pending that would increase the fee to file an initiative tenfold.

You can be sure that Citizens in Charge Foundation, Citizens in Charge, and our activists will be keeping a close eye on the remainder of the 2010 legislative session. If you would like to help monitor and influence legislators in your state, contact Citizens in Charge’s Director of Policy and Advocacy Programs, Brandon W. Holmes by emailing Brandon@citizensincharge.org, to see how you can get involved.