Subverting initiatives

When Nevada lawmakers refuse to pass legislation that might have widespread popular support, citizens can bypass the Legislature and put such matters on the ballot simply by collecting sufficient signatures of registered voters. The state Constitution requires that citizens collect a number of valid signatures “equal to 10 percent or more of the number of voters who voted at the last preceding general election.”

But lawmakers have a history of trying to make signature gathering more arduous. For years, the state forced petition circulators to hit that 10 percent threshold in 13 of Nevada’s 17 counties. The rule gave voters in Nevada’s least-populous counties disproportionate power in the process — if a petitioner collected more than enough signatures in Clark County alone, the voices of those voters could not be heard unless a handful of rural citizens agreed.

In 2004, a U.S. District Court judge threw out that requirement as unconstitutional. Most every initiative on the 2004 and 2006 ballots was not burdened by the “13 counties” standard.

But that much “direct democracy” displeased state lawmakers. In a blatant effort to subvert citizens’ right to make law through initiative, the 2007 Legislature passed Senate Bill 549, which requires petitioners to collect signatures in all 17 counties. Gov. Jim Gibbons signed the bill into law this week.

It institutes a Byzantine mathematical formula that takes the statewide 10 percent standard from each general election, then multiplies it by each county’s share of the state’s total population at that time to give petitioners a signature target.

For example, about 586,000 votes were cast in last year’s statewide ballot. Ten percent of that figure is 58,600. According to estimates from the state demographer’s office, Esmeralda County has 0.0005 percent of the state’s population. 58,600 X 0.0005 = 29.3. Bottom line: If a petitioner can’t secure 30 signatures in Esmeralda County next year, the campaign is dead, even if he secures the John Hancock of every other registered voter in the state.

“It’s a repackaging of the old rule … except that it’s even more unconstitutional,” says Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada, which successfully fought the “13 counties” law.

This is all about making the initiative process more cumbersome and more expensive. All votes count the same in statewide elections, regardless of where they were cast. Every signature should count the same, as well. SB549 is rubbish, and lawmakers and Gov. Gibbons know it.

Here’s hoping backers of the state’s next petition drive — regardless of its cause — sue the state to overturn this travesty.

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