Ballot measure protects Juneau and geographic democracy

The Alaska Observer

Posted: Wednesday, October 13, 2004

There are four separate ballot measures that will be voted on at this year's general election, and one in particular deserves special consideration by the residents of Alaska's capital city. Ballot Measure 1 can make our lives more secure by allowing only widely embraced ideas to go before voters, and preventing those with only token backing the chance to be adopted statewide. Ballot Measure 1 will change the Alaska Constitution to raise the standard for people seeking to have laws passed by initiative.

It's easiest to understand the effect of this by first looking at how the current system works, so bear with me. Under the current constitutional system, a person (or more often, a group) has to collect signatures in order to set the wheels in motion to get a referendum or initiative on the ballot. There is an initial application that 100 voters have to sign in order to begin circulating petitions.

Then there is a raw number of signatures that must be gathered on the petitions, as well as a minimum number of House election districts from which these signatures must come. This has the effect of preventing the most populous areas of Alaska from dictating the way things will be to the less densely inhabited zones. The total number of signatures that has to be collected on the petitions will not change, remaining at 10 percent of the total number of voters casting votes in the most recent general election.

The second standard is the one that Ballot Measure 1 has the chance to improve. Right now if there is at least one signature from each of 27 House districts, then an initiative goes on the ballot. This allows for token support from rural Alaska to green-light initiatives that are in reality strongly supported only in the population centers. Ballot Measure 1 will require that signatures come from three-quarters of the House districts and additionally, within each qualifying district, 7 percent of the voters who voted in the last general election. Seven percent may not seem like a lot, but it's surely a lot better than one single vote as a means of seeing if there is any significant level of support for a potential law of statewide application in a given House district.

Do all these numbers seem arbitrary and far-removed from your daily life? A brief consideration of Juneau's recent experiences fighting off ballot challenges may help bring the matter closer to home. It is quite easy for Alaskans who want to disestablish Juneau as the seat of government to get an initiative to do so on the ballot. We have had to fight such battles over and over again in the past few decades, and fortunately we've had the leadership of the Alaska Committee to raise funds and spearhead the defensive efforts. But it has cost a lot in time and money, both scarce commodities that could be used on other projects, like improving transportation to and from the capital, or enhancing the Capitol infrastructure. But if we have to hold down the fort against the Don Quixotes who want to tilt at the capital-move windmill every few years, we have less capacity to undertake proactive measures to make us a better capital city.

Every Juneau resident ought to look closely at Ballot Measure 1, and weigh the pros and cons. Two of Juneau's three legislative members voted for the resolution putting it on the ballot this November. It will make it harder for Outside interest groups to exert control on Alaska's legislative process. At the same time in keeps Alaskans in control of the initiative and referendum processes, and it will distribute this important power more equitably among the voting regions of the state, in a way that surely reflects the true intent of the framers of the Alaska Constitution to promote geographic democracy in the Great Land. Only petitions that have garnered both numerically substantial and geographically broad-based public support will go before the voters. Finally Ballot Measure 1 ensures that special interest groups, some from the far edges of reason, have to live up to a standard of public acceptance before crazy ideas are printed on the ballot. Anyone who is against this idea needs to reconsider why they like the initiative process the way it is, given all the headaches it has caused Juneau in the past. Let's prevent such pains and concentrate on making Juneau the best possible capital city as we head into the future.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.

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