Legislators Shouldn’t Gut The Initiated Measure Process Because Of Fraud

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There are conversations going on among law makers in the wake of the massive petition fraud perpetrated by a group of NDSU football players aimed at making such fraud a more serious crime. That would be a good move, but what’s troubling is that some legislators want to use the fraud as an excuse to make the initiated measure process a lot more arduous.

[House Majority Leader Al] Carlson said the Legislature should take a look at the overall initiated measure process, not just signature gathering fraud.

“If we’re going to look at the issue, let’s look at the whole issue because initiated measures and referendums are an important part of North Dakota, and the people love to vote on the issues,” he said. “We don’t take that lightly, but you should look at the whole thing.”

That could include conversations on raising the number of signatures to get a measure on the ballot, he said, as well as new requirements that the signatures come from across the state, not just residents of the state’s largest cities.

Carlson said it also could be a good time to look at the “pay-for-hire” signature gathering process used in the two failed measures, with supporters hiring private companies and teams of workers to collect residents’ signatures to secure spots on the ballot.

I’ll admit to being a bit torn on this issue. On one hand, the initiated measure process is an exercise in direct democracy, but our founding fathers were justifiably suspicious of putting the people directly in charge of governance. James Madison wrote about it in Federalist 10:

A pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

It worries me that, under our present laws, well-funded interests (such as those backing the conservation and medicinal marijuana measures that the NDSU fraud derailed) can hire professionals to put issues on the ballot that, if passed, the legislature cannot change for years. It’s an end-run around the legislative process, and while that may have value in the form of a popular check on legislative power, the potential for abuse is very real.

On the other hand, it’s a well-known fact that legislators don’t like the initiated measure process. Law-making is their domain, and they don’t take kindly to the process being taken out off their hands. But the initiated measure process is a valuable tool for citizens when the legislature just isn’t getting it right.

What Carlson is proposing would raise the bar for getting initiated measures on the ballot, but by doing so the people we’re really going to hurt will be the real grassroots groups. The coalitions of volunteers who come together, using their own time and funding, to push an issue.

Making it harder to put an issue on the ballot will only ensure that the only issues that make it to the ballot through the initiated measure process will be the ones backed by those who can afford to hurdle all the new obstacles people like Carlson would put in the way.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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