Ballot Law Update: Ballot law a focal point in the Dakotas

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February 27, 2013

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By Eric Veram

Since the beginning of the year, we have tracked 125 proposed laws in 31 states affecting the initiative and referendum process. The Ballot Law Update is released on the last Wednesday of each month. Stay tuned to the Tuesday Count for weekly ballot law news.

Recent news

South Dakota legislature proposes amendment aimed at limiting ballot measures' effect on taxes: A proposed constitutional amendment, sponsored by Senator Corey Brown would limit voters' ability to pass new taxes or raise existing ones via the ballot measure process. The amendment would require a two-thirds majority to do so, the same requirement the legislature must meet in order to increase taxes. The measure was passed on to the full state senate by a 6-1 vote from the Senate Tax Committee. If approved by both chambers, the measure would move on to the 2014 general election ballot.[1]

A Democratic supermajority in the California legislature might mean changes to the initiative process: According to reports, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has several initiative reforms in the works and may unveil some of them by the end of February. One proposed reform would involve removing the current requirement of a two-thirds majority to place tax increases on the ballot. Another proposed reform is re-instigating a process known as "indirect initiative." This form of initiative would allow the state legislature to amend initiatives or pass their own versions if the measures' proponents agree to it. Sources have also mentioned a possible proposal to restrict the current trend of high-donor financing of ballot measures. Supporters of the reforms say that they would make the initiative process more streamlined and would create a better process for passing state budgets.[2]

Proposal in Michigan seeks to open up more bills to referendum: On Friday, February 15, the Board of State Canvassers approved the petition of an initiated constitutional amendment that would remove the protection currently afforded bills containing appropriations that protects them from being subject to referendum. The measure was filed by the group Voters for Fair Use of Ballot Referendum. The measure is a response to a series of controversial bills passed late 2012 which had appropriations added to them in order to circumvent popular repeals similar to the referendum campaign that did away with Public Act 4. The "right-to-work" law and the revised emergency manager law were among legislation passed after the general election in 2012 that included appropriations making them referendum-proof. According to reports, the effort has little financial backing and will depend primarily on grassroots efforts to collect the required 322,609 by July 2014.[3]

North Dakota legislature debates amendment regulating initiatives: A proposal is currently in committee in the North Dakota House of Representatives that would greatly affect the initiative process in the state. Coming on the heels of a scandal last year involving signature fraud committed by paid petition circulators, the proposal, HCR 3011, would prohibit paid petitioners, raise the number of signatures required for referrals and initiatives, and require a minimum number of signatures from 50% of the counties in the state. Another notable aspect of the amendment is that it requires that any measure determined to have a fiscal impact of $20 million or more be submitted during a general election. If the proposal clears the legislature, it will go to voters in 2014.

Missouri sees push to re-establish campaign contribution limits: Voters in Missouri first approved limits on how much could be donated to political campaigns in 1994 with Proposition A. That law was repealed, however, by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2008. Though many members of the legislature are not in favor of reinstating the limits, Governor Jay Nixon has declared his intentions to pursue a ballot initiative doing just that if lawmakers don't. Representative Kevin McManus has filed a bill that would limit the amount of cash that can be spent by lobbyists on gifts, meals, and trips for public officials, but it remains to be seen how far it will go.[4]

Court actions

Federal judge upholds Minnesota law outlawing lying in political campaigns: On January 25, U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled in favor of upholding the Minnesota Fair Campaign Act. The law makes it a gross misdemeanor for anyone to intentionally disseminate campaign information, including that related to ballot measures, that they know is false. The law was challenged in 2008 by 281 CARE Committee and the Citizens for Quality Education who claimed that free-speech rights were violated, as well as their ability to participate in political debate. Initially the lawsuit was dismissed, but a reversal by the 8th Circuit Court brought it back before a federal district judge. Judge Montgomery ruled against the group saying, "Over a century ago, the Minnesota legislature implemented minimal, narrow restrictions against knowingly false speech about political candidates in an effort to protect the debates between honestly held beliefs that are at the core of the First Amendment. For nearly a quarter of a century, these restrictions have also applied to statements regarding ballot initiatives. The ballot provisions in Minn. Stat. § 211B.06 reflect a legislative judgment on behalf of Minnesotan citizens to guard against the malicious manipulation of the political process. The court finds that the provisions at issue are narrowly tailored to serve this compelling interest."[5]

Bills to watch

North Dakota considers harsher penalties for petition fraud: North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger has proposed a bill that would enact harsher punishments for those caught committing signature fraud in the state. The bill, which is sponsored by Representative Patrick Hatlestad, would increase the maximum allowable punishment from one year in jail and a $2,000 fine to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine. The proposal is in response to a scandal in 2012 where both the Medical Marijuana Initiative and the Oil Taxes for Wildlife Projects Amendment were declared invalid after Jaeger discovered that several members of the North Dakota State University football team had forged signatures on submitted petitions. Jaeger compared committing petition fraud to voter disenfranchisement, saying, "A group worked their tail off to put something before the voters and had a small group take that away from them."[6]

Alabama legislature considers implementing recall process: The Alabama legislature is currently considering is currently considering placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow for legislation to be drafted that would permit the recall of elected state officials. Unlike the majority of other states that permit the recall of state officials, Alabama's proposed law would not allow recalls without evidence of wrongdoing. According to reports, a recall under the proposal could only be initiated if the incumbent was charged with any of the following: Malfeasance or nonfeasance, lack of physical or mental fitness, incompetence or violation of an oath of office. The measure is sponsored by Senator Roger Bedford (D-Russellville) and can be found here.[7]

Approved legislation

So far, no initiative and referendum related legislation has been approved this year. This section will be updated as the year progresses.

See also