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Ballot Law Update: Michigan initiatives seek to expand initiative and referendum power

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March 26, 2014

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By Josh Altic

In 2014 legislative sessions so far, there are 71 pending laws concerning ballot measures, of which 67 were carried over from 2013 and 4 were proposed this year. Two have been defeated and one has been approved. The Ballot Law Update is released on the last Wednesday of each month.

Recent news

Two groups of activists in Michigan seek initiatives to expand initiative and referendum powers:

The group called Voters for Fair Use of Ballot Referendum is collecting signatures for an initiative that seeks to amend the Michigan Constitution to allow the referendum power to apply to laws that require or contain revenue appropriations. Currently, Article 2, Section 9, of the Michigan Constitution specifies that the referendum power "does not extend to acts making appropriations for state institutions or to meet deficiencies in state funds." According to the Fair Use of Ballot Referendum website, "Lately this protection has been interpreted to apply to any law that has any appropriations. The result has been the passage of laws with token amounts of appropriations that make the laws unchallengeable." The proposed amendment would remove this clause from the constitution, adding, instead, provisions that allow a veto referendum to target certain sections of a law. It would also change the constitution to explicitly protect only the particular sections of a bill that authorize state appropriations from the referendum process. The group needs to collect 322,609 signatures and submit them by July 7, 2014, to put its initiative on the November 4, 2014 election ballot.[1][2]

Michigan voters may see another initiative concerning direct democracy in November if the group Put Citizens in Control is likewise able to collect 322,609 signatures by July 7, 2014. This initiative, in addition to removing the protection against laws including appropriations, would expand the initiative and referendum power and make it more accessible in several ways:[3]

  • It would prevent signatures from being eliminated due to trivial, technical errors. For example, it would do away with the provision requiring that if two signatures from the same person are found in a petition, both must be thrown out.
  • It would allow residents of other states to gather petition signatures, easing and reducing the cost of petition drives.
  • It would allow the initiative and referendum power to extend to local ordinances.

Court actions

Judge overrules harsh restrictions on the initiative and referendum process in Arkansas:

Arkansas Senate Bill 821 was introduced on March 7, 2013, by its sponsor Senator Keith Ingram (D-24) and was overwhelmingly approved in both the Senate and the House. Governor Mike Beebe signed SB 821 into law as Act 1413 on April 22, 2013.[4][5] Act 1413 established strict restrictions on the petition drive process in Arkansas.

Sen. Robert Thompson (D-20), who co-sponsored the law, said, “A couple of petition gathering campaigns ended in some troubling results where it was fairly obvious that a lot of the signatures had been fraudulently obtained. The purpose behind the act was to try to reduce fraud or other misconduct in the petition gathering process.”[6]

Attorney David Couch represented the plaintiffs, Paul Spenser and Neil Sealey, in a lawsuit against Act 1413, claiming that the new bill put unrealistic impediments on petitioners.[7] On March 4, 2014, Arkansas Sixth Circuit Judge Mary McGowan overturned SB 821 (Act 1413), ruling that all six sections of the law violated the Arkansas Constitution by placing vague restrictions on the petition process and impeding the right of the people to the initiative and referendum power.[6]

Montana Supreme Court boots legislators' measure from ballot for violating their own statutes on ballot title length:

On March 24, 2014, the Montana Supreme Court ruled, in a 6 to 1 decision, to remove a legislatively-referred state statute, LR-127, from the ballot. According to Attorney General Tim Fox's spokesperson, John Barnes, "Based on this new guidance from the Montana Supreme Court, the Legislature will need to revisit its rules governing the submission of referendums to voters." The ruling rejected the measure, which sought to establish a “top-two” primary election system, based on its violation of a Montana law requiring the ballot title of a measure to be under 100 words in length. The decision also stated that the ballot title was "complicated and confusing." Chief Justice Mike McGrath said, "The Legislature chose to place the 100-word limitation into the statute and must comply with its own law when referring a matter to the people for the vote. Furthermore, the title of LR-127 is not a mere technical violation of the statute, but is substantially in excess of the 100-word limit imposed by the Legislature."[8]

Approved legislation

See also: Changes in 2014 to laws governing ballot measures

Arizona legislature repeals restrictions on the initiative process dubbed "voter suppression" by opponents:

Last month's Ballot Law Update reported on the approval in the Arizona Legislature of Arizona HB 2196, which repealed 2013's Arizona House Bill 2305, containing multiple election and ballot law reform provisions. This repeal of the 2013 election reform was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and officially enacted on February 27, 2014. The election reform that was repealed included provisions that voting rights advocates and other opponents called voter suppression. It required, among other restrictions, that initiative petitions have "strict compliance" with technical laws, rather than "substantial compliance."[9][10]

Failed legislation

Arizona Senate narrowly rejects law requiring ballot questions that spend or collect money to repeat every eight years:

Arizona SCR 1003, which would have required voter re-approval every eight years for any ballot measure that spends or collects public dollars, was introduced on January 27, 2014, and was referred to the Senate Rules Committee on February 18, 2014. On March 12, 2014, it was voted on in the senate, where it narrowly failed, with 15 senators voting in favor of it, 14 against and one absent or abstaining.[11][12]

SCR 1003 Senate Third Reading
Approveda Yes 15 50%
One senator was either absent or abstained from voting on this bill

Democrat-controlled New Mexico legislature denies Republican law makers' bid to equalize power by requiring a two thirds majority to put referred constitutional amendments on the ballot:

New Mexico SJR 17 would have required a two-thirds majority approval of any proposed constitutional amendment in both the Senate and House before the amendment was referred to the voters for ratification. This bill was introduced by Sen. John Ryan (R-10) on January 29, 2014, was approved in the Senate Rules Committee and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where any action on the bill was postponed indefinitely. Currently a simple majority - 50% plus 1 vote - is sufficient to send a constitutional amendment to the ballot for a voter decision. This bill would have required greater agreement and nonpartisan cooperation in the democrat-controlled legislature to put an amendment on the ballot. As of March 2014, 25 of the 42 New Mexico senators are Democrats, amounting to a 59 percent majority, but not a 2/3rds supermajority vote. 37 of 70 representatives are Democrats, which is a 53 percent majority. If this bill had been approved, it would have likely decreased the number of constitutional amendment measures presented to voters.[13]

See also

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