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EDITORIAL: Petition restrictions

State lawmakers are not fans of the initiative petition process. That’s why they always try to make it harder for citizens to put referendums and constitutional amendments before their fellow voters.

The people need the ability to bypass legislators to ensure they have a voice in government, to ensure that powerful interests can’t completely quash ideas that have at least some public support. Of course, legislators prefer having full control of the legislative process, lest they lose bargaining chips in their dealmaking. Petitions undermine lawmakers’ power.

However, lawmakers can only go so far in restricting the initiative process — the right to petition the Legislature is enshrined in the Nevada Constitution. In Senate Bill 434, the Legislature is actively discouraging future petitioners at best, and testing the constitutional boundaries of petition restrictions at worst.

It’s hard enough for petitioners to collect the signatures necessary to advance an initiative to the ballot or place it before a regular session of the Legislature. The qualification threshold is 10 percent of the number of voters who participated in the previous general election — a number that requires petitioners to reach an even higher figure to account for invalid signatures, such as people who aren’t registered to vote. But SB434 would create a separate, new signature collecting process. If the bill becomes law, petitioners would have to collect 1,000 signatures just to launch the petition.

SB434 also gives an initiative’s opponents a direct role in crafting the language that will appear on petitions, known as the “description of effect.” Anyone who dislikes to that language can file an objection with the secretary of state, at which point petitioners will have to sit down with their critics and rewrite the description of effect until the critics are satisfied. If the two sides can’t work something out, the language goes to court, where it will be settled by a judge.

SB434 clearly tries to speed up legal challenges to petitions, which in the past have dragged on for more than a year and threatened the timely printing of ballots. Opponents would have limited windows to contest a petition, but would gain a prominent, defined role in settling what voters see when deciding to sign. These would be the very interests that have driven petitioners to launch an initiative in the first place.

It shouldn’t be easy to qualify an initiative for the ballot. But it shouldn’t be impossible, and it shouldn’t be a rigged game that tilts the odds against petitioners. Let initiative opponents take a petitioner to court on their own dime, and let an impartial judge decide whether a petition’s language complies with state law. The Legislature should reject SB434, and if it passes, Gov. Brian Sandoval should veto it.

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