One of the little-noticed stories of the 2008 election was the escalating tug-of-war between legislatures and activists over the rules governing the citizen initiative process.
The struggle has ramped up dramatically since the 2006 election. Legislatures in the 24 states that allow initiatives have shown a keen interest in improving the process ever since the use of the citizen petition to place issues on the ballot skyrocketed in the 1990s. And recent legislative activity has been higher than ever before.
States have passed about double the number of bills addressing the initiative process in the 2007-2008 biennium (a total of 47 so far, with legislatures still in session in a handful of states) compared to the previous two biennia (22 in 2005-2006 and 32 in 2003-2004).
Why the heightened interest?
The process has changed tremendously in the past two decades. The initiative "industry"--individuals and firms that make a living from the initiative process by researching and drafting proposals, gathering signatures or campaigning for or against initiatives--has exploded. The average number of initiatives on ballots nationwide has doubled from 31 a year in the 1970s to 62 a year in the 2000s. And laws governing the process haven't kept pace.
Some state laws, for example, do not specify which official has the authority to investigate and prosecute abuses, while others lack the capacity to verify that circulators meet the legal qualifications.
Colorado Representative Andy Kerr was one of the co-sponsors of an unsuccessful referendum on the 2008 ballot that would have made qualifying constitutional initiatives harder, but statutory initiatives easier. He sees flaws in the initiative process, particularly in a state that had more measures on the ballot in 2008 than any other state.
"Citizens have a lot of power to change and propose laws and constitutional amendments," he says. "'But the way the process is set up in Colorado, our constitution can be changed frequently without these amendments being fully vetted first."
it is difficult, however, for legislatures to limit the number of initiatives qualifying for ballots, and whether or not they should is a controversial question. Increasing the number of signatures required, tinkering with time limits and restricting the subject matter involves amending state constitutions. And that requires voter approval.
It isn't always easy to convince voters that changing the...