Judge ballot initiative language, not intents

By Jesse Harris

In November, Utah voters are going to be asked to vote on multiple ballot initiatives placed before them. Each one involves complex laws drafted to try and achieve a specific purpose. This complexity is hard enough for someone who is specifically charged with vetting and refining laws. It’s going to be even more challenging for the common voter. This is why every one of the petition backers has chosen to try and sell what the intent of the bill is. Unfortunately, we’re voting on the complex laws, not the intents of their proponents.

Initiative backers know that the devil is in the details. I don’t doubt for a minute that their hearts are in the right place. They certainly fully intended to write good, tight laws that accomplish their stated purpose without ill side effects. The legislative process reveals that this is a challenging task. Bills are often revised multiple times before coming to a vote. Most of them don’t even make it that far, scrapped because of how difficult it to create the legal language that doesn’t cause more problems than it solves.

Once ballot language is out to the public and the signature gathering has started, there is no turning back. The language is set even if someone finds serious flaws in it. While the legislature has the power to implement fixes should those laws pass, they are often hesitant to do so for fear that they will be accused, wrongly or rightly, or interfering with the will of the people. It creates an intractable position where a bad initiative may end up being law and cannot be fixed unless legislators are willing to pay a very high political price. Todd Weiler correctly called it a no-win scenario.

For these reasons, it is absolutely imperative that any ballot initiative gets the language as close to perfect as possible. It’s equally important that voters do their due diligence to research what the resulting laws will actually do, not what the proponents want them to do. Given the finality of what would end up passing, the best choice for any voter is to reject any question where they do not have full confidence that they understand the law and that it accomplishes its stated goal. It is much easier and better for the initiative backers to come back after cleaning things up than to have the legislature try to fix it later.

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