Ballot Law Update: May sees major uptick in legal activity over 2012 ballot measures

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May 30, 2013

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By Eric Veram

Since the beginning of the year, we have tracked 171 proposed laws in 35 states affecting the initiative and referendum process. Please note that some of these are constitutional amendments requiring voter approval before going into effect. 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

Governor signs bill to sidestep wolf hunting referendum in Michigan: On May 8, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Senate Bill 288 into law. The bill gives the Natural Resources Commission the authority to designate a species as a game species without first needing the legislature to do so through a bill. This move could render the Wolf Hunting Referendum meaningless. SB 288 originally also included minor appropriations which would protect it form any future referendum. That language was removed from the bill in April.[1]

Arkansas term limits proposal meets roadblock: Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has recently rejected a proposed ballot measure because of the wording of its ballot title. The proposal is a constitutional amendment that would establish ten-year term limits for total time served in the Arkansas State Legislature. Currently senators may only serve eight years, and representatives are limited to six. However, there are no rules regarding total time spent in the legislature. The measure would also increase the current period during which legislators are prohibited form becoming lobbyists from one year to four.[2]

Michigan voters to answer citizenship question on ballot: After a legal battle last year over a similar proposal, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has successfully included language to the state's ballot application that reminds voters that they must be U.S. citizens in order to cast their ballots. Secretary Johnson cited the recent filing of a criminal charge against a citizen of Mexico who registered and voted in Rosevill, MI, as a reason why the language is needed. Some have questioned the necessity of the language due to the fact that voters must present photo identification when they cast their ballots.[3]

Initiative creating alternate route to primary ballots announced in Utah: The group Count My Vote Utah has announced plans to discuss a possible initiative campaign that would revamp the state's process for deciding who gets to be a candidate in the primary elections. Currently candidates can only get on the primary ballot if their party certifies them at the party's convention. This limits the names submitted by whatever rules the party might have. Count My Vote's proposal would offer candidates an alternative route to the ballot by allowing them access if they collect the signatures of at least two percent of a registered party's members in their jurisdiction. Supporters have until April 15, 2014, to collect the just over 101,000 signatures needed to place the initiative before voters.[4]

Court actions

Colorado Court of Appeals says federal law trumps state: The Colorado Court of Appeals recently ruled 2-1 to uphold the firing of a man who used medical marijuana while not at work. Brandon Coats is a quadriplegic who has a prescription for the drug in the state and contested the firing by claiming he was protected by the Colorado Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute. The law prohibits employers from firing employees for engaging in legal activity outside of work, however it is silent on the matter of federal versus state law. The court refuted the claim by ruling that the statute does not extend to protecting individuals who violate federal outside of work.[5]

North Dakota Supreme Court hears case regarding Measure 2: Last year the group Empower the Taxpayer sued public officials over a claim that those officials were using public funds to campaign against Measure 2, a ballot initiative they sponsored that would have eliminated property taxes throughout the state. District Judge Bruce Romanick then threw out the lawsuit and ordered the group to issue a public apology and pay around $26,000 in public officials' legal fees. The order was quickly appealed, and, despite being long after the measure's defeat at the polls, is just being heard before the state supreme court.[6]

Legal challenge heats up over Montana's "Proof of Citizenship" Initiative: On Thursday, May 23, Judge Jeffrey M. Sherlock, of the Montana 1st Judicial District Court, heard arguments from the state on why he should dismiss a lawsuit filed against LR-121. The measure, which voters passed last by a wide margin, requires proof of citizenship in order for a person to receive certain services provided by the state. The Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance is the leading plaintiff in the case and claims that the law unconstitutionally targets immigrants, legal or otherwise. Montana Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the plaintiffs have no standing due to the fact that there are no known instances of the law being actually enforced since it took effect.[7]

Lawsuit filed challenging Missouri teacher evaluation initiative's wording: A lawsuit was filed on Friday, May 3, that challenges the wording of an initiative designed to implement a process for evaluating teachers based on students' academic growth. The lawsuit contends that the measure's ballot summary is misleading because it fails to mention that it would eliminate tenure protections for educators. The lawsuit was filed by four teachers who said the ballot measure would permit school districts to fire or cut the pay of public school teachers and administrators without cause or due process. The lawsuit also argues that the fiscal note is in error because it does not take into account the cost it would impose upon school districts.[8]

Bills to watch

More laws aimed at the initiative process gain momentum in Arizona: On Wednesday, May 15, a Senate panel voted to approve Senate Bill 1493, a piece of legislation aimed at clamping down on regulation governing initiative petitions. According to reports, the bill would require that petition sheets be organized by county of residence of signers, by the circulator on that signature sheet, and by the name of the person who notarized each. It would also reverse a court ruling that allowed for petitions to be certified as valid if they were in "substantial compliance" with the law. SB 1493 requires that election officials void any and all petitions not deemed to be in "strict compliance" with the law.[9]

Missouri may soon see public hearings held on ballot proposals: On Wednesday, May 22, the Missouri State Legislature passed House Bill 117, which now awaits Gov. Jay Nixon's signature. If he does sign it, the bill would enact several reforms to the state's initiative process, including the creation of public hearings on proposed measures. Reports indicate that the reforms are due to a large uptick in submitted ballot proposals in recent years. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that 16 were submitted in 2004, a number significantly lower than the 143 submitted last year. The bill would also allow the public to access information about petitions online and would require petition circulators to disclose whether they are volunteering or are being compensated.[10]

Approved legislation

Florida legislature passes massive elections reform: On Friday, May 3, the Florida legislature passed a bill that makes sweeping changes to the elections process in the state. The changes include moving the date of the presidential primary, expanding options for where early voting can be done, and extending the time allotted for early voting, something Gov. Rick Scott (R) and the legislature cut just two years ago. Another part of the bill sets a 75 word limit on the summaries of constitutional amendments referred to the ballot by the legislature. An exemption to that limit is allowed, however, if the state supreme court rejects the measure, and it needs to be revised. The change comes after some argued that the excessive ballot summaries, coupled with a large number of referrals, added to the problem of long poll lines in 2012.[11]

See also