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A proposal for restoration

The winding down of this year’s campaign means time is coming not only to vote but also to consider how this process can be improved next time. Do we really want a 2008 campaign season that becomes simply a bigger and badder version of this one? Thought not (for most of us, that is).

Here’s one such suggestion (we will have more soon).

Consider the Thursday ruling by the Supreme Court in Montana (Montanans for Justice v. State) throwing out (more precisely, declaring void) three ballot issues which actually will appear on the state’s ballot. These issues were backed by some of the same outfits which sent their tentacles into Washington, Oregon and Idaho this season. Here’s a piece of what the court said happened:

Proponents began collecting signatures throughout the state of Montana in March 2006 and collected them until June 23, 2006, the date on which all gathered signatures had to be submitted to county election administrators for certification. Proponents utilized some Montana citizens to collect signatures but relied primarily on paid out-of-state signature gatherers to obtain the overwhelming majority of the signatures submitted. The uncontradicted evidence established that Proponents paid over $633,000.00 to out-of-state signature gatherers who collected signatures for these three initiatives. Individual signature gatherers were paid between fifty-cents and $2.50 per signature per initiative.

Proponents submitted their signed petitions to the county election administrators, who in turn certified them . . . On August 16, 2006, Opponents filed their Complaint alleging that Proponents’ signature gatherers violated the statutory requirements governing ballot issue petitions by obtaining signatures in a deceptive manner and by falsely swearing to the contents on the signature gatherers’ form affidavits.

The district and supreme court agreed the deception and false affidavits were not just present, but pervasive. And took the noteworthy step of killing the issues even though they could not (because of ballot printing schedules) be removed from the ballot.

No similar legal challenges have been filed in the northwestern states, maybe in part because courts in this region have strong precedent in place to allow ballot issues to go forth to election, on grounds they’re not ripe for review until then. But what are the odds that such extensive problems as cropped up in Montana but are absent here?

True, Oregon has a (useful) law banning payment of signature gatherers by signature, which was part of the Montana problem. But the influx of money and the message behind it – get that thing on the ballot – inevitably will lead to similar problems.

Our suggestion: Prohibit payment of people for gathering signatures for ballot issue petititions.

This would impinge on no one’s personal freedom of speech or political activity. You and your allies want an issue on the ballot? Great: Volunteer your time. And persuade other people to volunteer theirs.

But it would restore – we could call this the Initiative Restoration Act – the emergence of ballot issues from the grass roots. It would help return initiatives to their original intended purpose: A safety valve for the people at large when they feel their interests are not being met by state legislatures. It would not take the money out of campaigns to pass or defeat (that being another subject). But it would undercut the ability of narrowed moneyed interests to hijack the politics and political discussions of states around the country, turning those states and their people into the playtoys of millionaires – something that has happened altogether too much this year.

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