Utah voters need their ballot back

May 02, 2024 (Utah News Dispatch)

Legislators in the House Chamber are pictured on the first day of the legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

In the Utah Foundation’s recent release about what matters most to Utahns, the issues of “politicians (not) listening to voters” and “government overreach” ranked in second and fourth place. This should come as no surprise.

Currently, the Utah legislature is painfully out of step with the people they are meant to serve. While everyday Utahns worry about housing affordability and making ends meet, our state elected officials focus on manufactured controversies like “critical race theory” and the dangers of diversity.

The 2024 legislative session was very bad in this regard. The 2025 session will be worse.

Unfortunately, as the Legislature becomes increasingly disconnected from voters, its leaders have worked hard to ensure that there will be no consequences for their failure of representation.

Specifically, legislators have worked quite deliberately to make the ballot measure process next to impossible in our state. There are tight deadlines, extensive handwritten signature requirements, public hearings to hold across the state, and many more barriers to clear before a ballot initiative can appear on the election ballot.

A ballot measure is an opportunity for community members to put issues of public importance before their fellow voters. It is one of very few direct democracy tools we have available to us. It is a way to hold our elected officials accountable for ignoring us.

In 2007, Utah voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum to veto the first statewide school privatization program in the nation, after the legislature created a highly unpopular voucher program. The veto referendum passed with 62% of the vote. Voters in every county rejected the legislature’s school privatization program.

Sixteen years later, with private school patrons and homeschoolers posing as “overwhelming public support,” the legislature finally got its voucher program, using tens of millions of public tax dollars to fund it. And now, in 2024, changes to the initiative process have made it extremely unlikely that Utahns will be able to reject this disastrous idea via popular vote again.

Even if voters did have the opportunity, it is virtually guaranteed that the legislature would immediately set to work undoing the impact of that vote.

In 2018, advocates successfully passed three ballot measures: Proposition 2 legalized the medicinal use of cannabis; Proposition 3 opted the state into Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act; and Proposition 4 established an independent redistricting commission to counteract legislative gerrymandering.

The Legislature did its best to undo or forestall all three.

In the case of medical cannabis and Medicaid expansion, legislative leaders dragged out and complicated implementation as much as possible. This created unnecessary confusion and delays for people seeking to benefit from either program. Thankfully, community advocates persevered, and both measures were eventually implemented.

Three months after voters asked for an independent redistricting commission, the legislature passed bipartisan legislation, nearly unanimously, that rendered the fledgling commission completely powerless.

Ballot referendums aren’t specifically mentioned in the Constitution – but we are granted the general right to petition our government. And in Utah, we are running out of ways to realize this constitutional guarantee. Legislative leaders have successfully strangled the normal avenues by which we should be able to express our displeasure with their lack of substantive work on our behalf.

In Utah, legislators from gerrymandered districts can win an election by appealing to a very small group of political extremists. Increasingly, legislators resign before the end of their term, and essentially “designate” a successor to be picked by that same small group of partisans in a special election. When in office, they tightly control our ability to engage with the legislative process, to perpetuate an illusion of public support for their personal projects.

It seems, though, that there is no such thing as “too much” or even “enough” control for our legislature. We should absolutely expect more bills, similar to those from Rep. Jason Kyle (R-Huntsville) this past session, that seek to increase barriers to community-initiated ballot measures.

Your legislators may not want to hear from you, but it is their constitutional obligation to listen. Let them know that you care about preserving the people’s right to petition their government. Tell them to stop creating new barriers to our ballot.

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