Report: Most state ballot initiative laws are ‘ripe for fraud’

(Erik Hersman/Flickr)

A majority of states which allow ballot initiatives received a failing grade on fairness and transparency in the initiative process, according to a new report from the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC).

Mississippi was the state with the worst grade, meeting only 28 percent of BISC’s criteria for a fair and transparent initiative process, while Oregon and Colorado were the only states to achieve over 70 percent of the criteria.

Overall, BISC’s conclusions are pessimistic about the current state of direct democracy in America:

Sadly, the report card finds that most initiative states continue to be ripe for fraud, receiving grades of D or F. New recommendations reveal that voters often don’t know who is asking them to sign a petition. State laws also allow them to be subjected to the same measures year after year, forcing voters to reject the same idea repeatedly.

BISC placed high value on preventing signature fraud. Only Mississippi and California don’t give the public time to challenge fraud in the signature-collecting process. In Mississippi, after the Secretary of State makes a decision on whether enough signatures have been collected, no one but the initiative’s proponents can appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

One of BISC’s recommendations is that one agency or official be given authority to exclude signatures gathered illegally and “take action against fraud and deception,” something that no state has done. “Secretaries of State, with limited staff and resources, simply aren’t able to provide enough oversight and enforcement,” the report says.

Mississippi’s exceptionally low score in BISC’s report comes in particular from its lack of regulations to prevent petition fraud. However, Mississippi’s current system does have some aspects that BISC lauds: Like a few other states, Mississippi seeks geographical balance in its petitions by requiring that signatures come from at least five different congressional districts. Mississippi also requires that ballots cutting taxes be revenue-neutral and indicate which spending programs will be cut to maintain a balanced budget, an idea that BISC recommends and that no other state has implemented.

Mississippi currently has three initiatives which are set to appear on the November ballot: The first would institute fetal personhood in the state constitution, effectively banning all abortion; the second would require voter identification at the polls; and the third would institute a ten-year waiting period before the government could grant property it had acquired through eminent domain to a third party. The eminent domain and “fetal personhood” initiatives are both facing court challenges to remove them from the ballot.

Oregon was the highest-ranked state on BISC’s scorecard. It is one of only two states that require 1,000 or more signatures before filing a petition, and one of three states that requires petition circulators to register with the state to ensure transparency. Colorado, the second highest-ranked state, is one of three states that require petition-circulating companies and their subcontractors to register with the state.

BISC also recommends that states require that initiative proponents file financial disclosure reports when they are collecting signatures for their petition. Thirteen states have this requirement, including California. Financial disclosure requirements meant that prominent supporters of California’s 2008 same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8, which included many wealthy members of the Mormon church, were identified and personally criticized by opponents of the initiative who argued that same-sex marriage bans are religiously motivated and impair civil rights.

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