Two strategies to improve Utah’s ballot initiative process

Written by Derek Monson

February 4, 2019

Originally published in Standard-Examiner.

The number of ballot initiatives seen in Utah in recent elections is historically high. Some have divided communities (e.g., medical marijuana), while others created legal conflicts and left state legislators to clean up the mess (e.g., Medicaid expansion).
Many are being driven by deep-pocketed, out-of-state political donors seeking to change laws (which they don’t have to live under) combined with a for-profit signature-gathering industry (whose primary goal is not good laws, but making money). These problematic realities do not encourage good public policymaking, and they even risk persuading the public that Utah’s ballot is more about profit than policy.

But these problems also bring an opportunity for solutions.

Solving Utah’s ballot initiative problems requires reforms that protect the integrity of our republic’s democratic and constitutional institution of ballot initiatives by: (1) making it a better policymaking process and (2) protecting that process from the perception that it facilitates political profiteering.

The best policymaking process we have — the process that has generated the policies that contribute to Utah’s nation-leading economic prosperity and good governance — is the legislative process. Of course, one purpose of a ballot initiative is to bypass state lawmakers. However, ballot initiatives — and all Utahns — could still benefit from adopting positive elements of the legislative process, even if they want to go around state lawmakers. The legislative process is driven by a competition of ideas and a need to balance geographic interests through deliberative debate and building consensus support for a new law.

Stoking a competition of ideas within ballot initiatives could be done by giving voters more than a binary choice on ballot issues. For example, the timing of signature gathering on ballot initiatives could be adjusted so that the Utah Legislature could put an alternative option on the ballot alongside a proposition. Voters would then choose among supporting the proposition, supporting the Legislature’s alternative, or opposing both and voting for the status quo.

Having a third voting option on a ballot question would avoid the false and misleading choice currently presented to voters on ballot questions. In the case of Medicaid expansion, for instance, instead of choosing to either help low-income people get health coverage or do nothing more for them, they would choose among multiple ways to help them or leave things as they are. This competition of ideas will force a more informed debate that leads to better public policy, as the proposed laws of ballot initiative supporters and legislators must compete to create the broadest consensus of support.

Another healthy part of the legislative process that ballot initiatives could adapt and borrow is to require that an initiative win the most votes in a majority (15 of 29) or super-majority (20 of 29) of senate districts in the state to pass, rather than just winning the most votes statewide. This would require that initiatives appeal to a wide geographic swath of the state, rather than focusing on population centers. This would empower more Utahns and force initiative supporters to again focus on building a broad public consensus of support from voters.

Some may complain that this second reform would add improper burdens to passing a ballot initiative. However, getting a statewide majority (the current requirement) actually requires more votes than getting a majority in 15 or 20 state senate districts. Rather than clearly placing a bigger burden on ballot initiatives, a requirement for a majority/supermajority of senate districts would create some barriers, while lowering others. What it would clearly do is tilt ballot initiative dynamics toward generating broad consensus on policy issues, and away from a simple appeal to a narrower base of population centers.

One way to protect the ballot initiative process from problems associated with the practices of for-profit signature-gathering companies: Require such companies to be licensed and strictly follow rules connected to that license. During signature-gathering for the medical marijuana ballot initiative, for instance, signature gatherers from both sides were accused of making false statements to persuade voters to sign or remove a signature from the initiative, and the same for-profit companies that were paid to gather signatures for the initiative were paid to get those signatures removed. Both of these practices should be violations of a for-profit signature-gathering business license – and should result in immediate suspension of that license and disqualification of all signatures that company gathered or had removed.

With these kinds of reforms to our ballot initiative process, initiatives would be more geared toward broad consensus, likely making them less divisive and controversial. The ballot initiative process would also be protected from public perception concerns related to for-profit signature gathering. In both cases, ballot initiatives would likely lead to better policy outcomes for Utahns. And that is what all ballot initiatives should really be about.

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