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PORT: Initiated measures should be simple

By Staff | Nov 17, 2017

Legislating at the ballot box is a foolish way to make public policy.

That said, there is a widespread fetish in American society for direct democracy, and so we’re stuck with initiated measures. A crap shoot of a process that lets deep pocketed interests pay professional signature collectors to put their hobby horse issues on the ballot, completely bypassing our elected officials and the rigorous legislative process.

But state lawmakers are considering reforms to that process in an attempt to improve it. They’ve convened an interim committee to study reforms.

That the process needs improving is obvious.

The medical marijuana ballot measure, for instance, was so poorly written that it didn’t actually decriminalize medical marijuana. Had the Legislature not acted after the ballot measure passed it would have taken a second ballot measure to correct the issue and actually, you know, legalize medical marijuana.

Why did nobody catch this glaring error? Probably because the medical marijuana measure was hugely complicated, consisting of dozens of pages of dense legal language that few if any voters bothered to read.

If I told you that state lawmakers weren’t bothering to read the laws they were voting on you’d probably be upset. Why should we be any less exercised at evidence of the electorate failing to read and understand laws they vote on?

The debacle surrounding Marsy’s Law, the so-called “victims rights” ballot measure inserted into our state constitution, represents another problem with initiated measures.

The campaign behind the measure was backed by millions of dollars from California billionaire Henry Nicholas. It passed, over the nearly unanimous objections of the state’s legal and victim advocacy communities, because those objections were drowned out by an expensive marketing campaign.

Now we’re stuck with the law and it’s causing real problems, not the least of which is law enforcement agencies using it as an excuse to keep secret information about crimes that’s traditionally been public record.

Which brings me to the point of this column. North Dakota should consider a provision like one in Montana which prohibits a single ballot measure from making multiple changes to the law.

Interestingly, that requirement was the reason why the Montana Supreme Court struck down that state’s iteration of Marsy’s Law. They argued that the measure’s multiple changes to the state constitution weren’t closely related and thus the measure itself was illegal.

The benefit of such a requirement is obvious. It would ensure that ballot measures are simpler and easier to understand.

Let’s face it, most voters probably aren’t going to read the ballot measures they’re voting on anyway. Which is why, in a perfect world, we’d rid ourselves of initiated measures.

But since that’s a pipe dream, perhaps a requirement for simpler and more focused measures would help enable voters to make better decisions.

Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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