My turn: Initiative process not broken

Ballot measures engage people in direct democracy

Posted: Tuesday, April 14, 2009

It's difficult to get an initiative on the Alaska ballot. And, as the last election clearly shows, it's difficult to pass those initiatives. All four of the ballot initiatives failed.

What most Alaskans might not know is that there were 17 initiatives submitted to the Division of Elections in an effort to put them on the 2008 ballot. So only about 25 percent of the initiatives that began the long process actually made the ballot. And zero percent passed.

That is why House Bill 36, sponsored by Rep. Kyle Johansen, is so puzzling. ("Right to petition belongs to state's citizens," March 5) Johansen believes that the initiative process has "enormous problems" and is "used as a way for special interests to maneuver around the lawmaking body to enact laws without regard for the public as a whole."

Huh? You can't get any more public than voting. Every voter in Alaska has a voice and a say in an initiative. Even if they didn't sign to put it on the ballot, they have a chance to vote on it. That's what the Constitution says and that's the way it should stay.

Johansen needs to get 21 votes to pass his bill. To get an initiative on the ballot, you need to collect more than 21,000 signatures, with a significant percentage in 30 out of the 40 Alaska House districts. And that just gets you on the ballot. There is simply no evidence that the initiative process is being hijacked by so-called special interests.

That is not to say that special interests haven't invested in Alaska elections because of ballot initiatives. Most recently, the mining industry spent almost $9 million to defeat ballot measure 4 in the 2008 election. Proponents of that initiative spent nearly $3 million to pass it.

In 2006, the Vancouver-based Northwest Cruiseship Association spent more than $2 million in their losing effort to defeat the cruise ship initiative. In 1998, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints spent $500,000 to pass the constitutional amendment to limit marriage.

But Johansen isn't seeking to put a limit on that kind of money. His bill calls for hearings on the initiative in 30 out of 40 House districts. It calls for limiting what can be on the ballot if it has been on the ballot before. It calls for a standing committee in the Legislature to review initiatives and determine whether Alaskans have spoken on that issue. None of this is called for.

The ballot initiative system is not broken. Indeed, ballot measures engage people in direct democracy. Regardless of political motivations, getting an Alaskan voter to sign your initiative is hard work. It happens one at a time. And it gets people fired up on both or all sides of an issue. That's what our democracy needs, not more rules from Juneau that will limit initiatives by making the process impossible. In the waning days of the legislative session, this bill should be dropped and more important issues dealt with.

I've worked on initiatives that have passed and I've worked on initiatives that have failed. Neither the wins nor the losses have made me think that the initiative system needs to be overhauled. Just as when candidates win and lose, they don't attempt to change the rules in order to make it more difficult for their opponent to run. You don't always win, but the playing field should remain level.

Alaska has not turned into California, where scores of initiatives crowd the ballot. There is no fix needed, especially not House Bill 36. The framers of Alaska's Constitution saw fit to include an initiative process to protect the rights of Alaska citizens. Johansen's misguided efforts to manipulate that should be rejected. Alaska voters are smart enough to handle it. They need to be given the benefit of the doubt and the benefit of democracy.

• Steve Cleary is the former director of AkPIRG and is currently a stay at home dad in Anchorage.

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