A federal judge on Monday threw out a state law that requires petition circulators to collect signatures in all 17 Nevada counties, ruling the statute "favors residents of sparsely populated counties over residents of densely populated counties" and therefore violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
But Nevada lawmakers knew that when they passed the unconstitutional rubbish last year.
In 2004, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out similar rules in Idaho. Then, later that year, a federal judge trashed Nevada standards that mirrored Idaho's by requiring that signatures be collected in 13 of the 17 counties. The rulings could not have been more clear: Giving the citizens of one or a few counties the power to veto the majority of a state's residents violates the principle of "one man, one vote."
After more than a dozen initiatives qualified for the 2004 and 2006 ballots by concentrating their signature collection efforts in the Las Vegas and Reno areas, state Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, decided that the interests of rural Nevada -- and the Legislature itself -- had to be protected regardless of what the federal courts ruled.
In a bipartisan boondoggle, the Legislature concocted a convoluted formula requiring petition circulators to collect signatures from every county. Legislative watchdogs pointed out that the bill was even more unconstitutional than the previous Nevada statute, that it wouldn't stand up to a court challenge and that the state would end up wasting public resources defending it. Of course, it won approval.
We've seen this kind of stubbornness before. The campaign advertising "Truth Squad" sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, was one piece of unconstitutional legislation that never should have made it through a committee hearing, let alone become law. Efforts by Clark County and the city of Las Vegas to crack down on free speech in gaming corridors come to mind, as well.
There should be modest requirements in the petition process to prevent frivolous questions from qualifying for the ballot. But the right to petition the government is enshrined in the First Amendment for a reason: It's a vital safety valve in limiting the powers of government and keeping it accountable to the citizenry.
The third time should be the charm, here. No one in the Legislature can possibly believe there is a way to require petitioners to travel the state in search of autographs. The court got this one right, again -- the signature of every registered voter counts the same, regardless of where they live.