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Utah Supreme Court allows opponents to block citizen ballot initiatives with signature removal

Posted at 5:52 AM, Oct 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-12 07:53:15-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court says opponents of a citizen ballot initiative can work to persuade people who sign an initiative to change their mind.

In a 4-1 opinion published Friday, the Court rejected Count My Vote’s legal challenge. The group sued after they were kicked off last year’s ballot when enough people had removed their signatures from the citizen referendum. Count My Vote essentially argued it was too difficult to get on the ballot, and too easy to be removed.

The Court had issued an order last year because of the short timeframe the litigation was under. Friday’s ruling was an explanation of its earlier decision.

Count My Vote was a citizen ballot initiative that sought to allow for political candidates to gather signatures to get on a ballot for office, bypassing the caucus-convention system. That triggered a long-running “civil war” within the Utah Republican Party, nearly bankrupting the state’s dominant political party.

The legislature passed a bill (SB54) to allow for both paths to get before voters, which the Utah GOP sued over. Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, Governor Gary Herbert and Congressman John Curtis have all gathered signatures to ensure a spot on the ballot.

A rival group, Keep My Voice, sought to preserve the caucus-convention system only. They persuaded enough people to remove their signatures so Count My Vote didn’t make it on the ballot last year.

“The current signature provision requires sponsors to gather signatures in twenty-six of Utah’s twenty-nine senate districts. These districts, as CMV concedes, have roughly equal populations. And this equal distribution of population means that rural and urban voters are treated the same and that neither group wields disproportionate power. Thus, even assuming that application of the one-person, one-vote principle is appropriate here, there is no violation thereof,” Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee wrote.

The Court also rejected complaints by Count My Vote about how voters go about removing their signatures from referendums.

But the justices also appeared divided over how far the Utah State Legislature can go on initiatives. While agreeing with the majority, however, Justice Deno Himonas also noted the Utah Constitution’s right to initiative seems to “militate against the notion that the legislature should be afforded broad discretion in regulating the initiative process.”

“Allowing the legislature broad discretion in regulating the initiative process undercuts the initiative process’s function as a vehicle by which the people can govern themselves. In regulating the initiative process, the legislature engages in the very behavior the initiative process is meant to circumvent,” he wrote. “Because the right to initiative acts as the people’s check against the legislature, it seems unusual to treat the directive language as a means by which the legislature can check the people’s right to initiative without being subjected to strict or heightened scrutiny review by the courts.”

In her dissent with the majority, Justice Paige Petersen said giving initiative opponents 30 days after signatures are submitted to persuade people to remove them goes too far.

“To be clear, I do not argue that the law cannot allow signers to remove their names at all—just that the period within which they can do so should either end at the same time sponsors must submit their signatures to county clerks, or that sponsors must have an adequate cure period,” she wrote.

In the aftermath of three ballot initiatives on medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and independent redistricting passing in Utah, the legislature passed a series of laws tweaking how initiatives get on the ballot. One modifies the numbers slightly, while another creates a near real-time system of signature adding/removal before a citizen referendum qualifies to be on the ballot.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, recently told FOX 13 she intended to carry legislation next year that would make any modification of a citizen ballot initiative by the legislature subject to a referendum.

The Utah Supreme Court signaled that any future legal challenge on how initiatives get on the ballot might have a different outcome.

“Our disposition of this matter is based on the procedural posture of the case that is before us—the fact that this comes to us in a compressed timeframe on a petition for extraordinary writ. And we note that our decision could conceivably be different if a case like this came to us on a more completely developed record—in a case filed in district court on a declaratory judgment claim, for example,” Justice Lee wrote.

Read the Utah Supreme Court’s ruling here: