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Initiatives to be part of next political year

Citizens must sign petitions to get initiatives either on the ballot or submitted to the legislature, regardless of whether direct or indirect initiatives are being proposed.

Sun Advocate publisher

Editor's note: This is the first of three articles dealing with the initiative process in Utah and examining the pros and cons of petitions presently being circulated to put initiatives on the 2010 general election ballot in Utah.)

While Utah is one of the states that have had few citizen initiatives on ballots in the past century, in the next year, it appears that the state will have two at once. Both initiatives concern creating independent commissions, one of which would be for redistricting congressional and state legislators' districts and the other for examining the ethics of the Utah State Legislature.

Utah is unique when it comes to such types of movements. While the state allows initiatives to be placed on ballots, it is not as liberal as some states are regarding this process. Basically, the state limits initiatives by making it hard for the backers of any such movement to get a measure onto a November ballot in any way.

State law accomplishes this by using pure numbers of voters that must sign any petition, as well as through utilizing geographical boundaries in conjunction with the signatures procured. Under the law, supporters must gather 10 percent of the number of voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election statewide. In addition, that 10 percent number must also be gathered in 26 of the 29 state senate districts. It is a dual qualification that makes the monkey on the back of backers of any such movement seem more like a gorilla.

There is a purpose in this; many who support a strong law limiting initiatives, say that our government is set up to be ruled by those representing the people, not by the people themselves once they have elected their officials. But others say that any kind of movement by the people should be heard. Often the politics of the state or an era limit the people's access and their influence on elected officials.

Initiatives are just what they sound like; a movement by some grass roots organization or group that wants to change something about government without having to involve the legislature or ruling body. The term is often confused with referendum, which is generally the approval of something that has already been passed by the legislative branch.

To be more exact, in a referendum, the state legislature sends legislation to the people for a vote to either accept or reject what they have done. This is called a voluntary referendum. There are also various other kinds of referendums including:

A compulsory referendum. Typically, new constitutions must be submitted to the people for approval before they are considered ratified. Some states also require that bond measures be approved by referendum.

A popular referendum. In this case, the people may challenge a law recently passed by the legislative body. If enough signatures are gathered, the law will be put to a vote. The law could be struck down if it does not pass.

Within an initiative, a group of citizens drafts a proposed regulation. With an indirect initiative, people may draft a proposed law and present it to the legislature for passage. The legislature has the opportunity to adopt it outright, or the proposal could go on the ballot. In this case, the legislature may draft a counter law that would be voted on at the same time. In a direct initiative, citizens draft a proposed law. Once the parameters of the state are met, the initiative will go on the ballot.

In Utah, both indirect and direct initiatives are allowed. All in all, 24 states have laws allowing citizens to place initiatives on ballots. While these states have similar laws in how to proceed with an initiative, no two are alike in detail, yet they all hold the following steps in common.

First, the group that wants to put an initiative on the ballot must file a proposed petition with the proper state officials. In Utah's case, it is the lieutenant governor's office.

Second, the state must review the proposed petition to be sure it meets the requirements of the state. This review includes the name of the initiative and a summary of what it intends to accomplish.

Third, it is required that the petition for the initiative be circulated for voters' signatures under the parameters mentioned earlier in this article.

Finally, once proponents feel they have reached the number of signatures they need to qualify for the initiative to be placed on the ballot, the petitions must be submitted to the state. State officials must then verify the signatures as being those of registered voters and assure that the number of signatures meets the state's requirements. Once these requirements are met, then the measure can be placed on the next election ballot, where, in Utah, a simple majority of votes is enough to pass the measure.

The two initiatives presently being passed around Utah for signatures are direct initiatives. Many who are in support of these moves are doing so because they feel the legislature has not been responsive either in terms of dealing with redistricting every 10 years or else they don't want to deal with the question of ethics in a sufficiently strong fashion.

Sources for this article include the National Initiative for Democracy and the Utah State Code 20A-7-201 to 20A-7-214.

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