Lawmakers and voters consider distribution requirements for initiative signature drives

Voters in at least two states, Arkansas and Montana, will decide ballot measures in 2020 concerning distribution requirements for future initiative signature petition drives. A distribution requirement is a rule requiring that petitions for a ballot measure or candidate must be signed by a minimum number or percent of voters from different political subdivisions in order for the ballot measure or candidate to qualify for the ballot.
 
In Arkansas, House Joint Resolution 1008 would amend the state constitution to require signature gathering to be spread out over at least 45 counties (three-fifths of the state’s 75) instead of the current requirement of 15 counties. HJR 1008 also proposes changes to many other aspects of direct democracy in Arkansas, such as increasing the majority required for the legislature to put an amendment on the ballot to three-fifths, eliminating a grace period for additional signature gathering, and moving the deadline for signature submission and legal challenges forward to earlier in an election year.  
 
In Montana, the two amendments on 2020 ballots would not change the currently enforced distribution requirement. Rather, they would codify in the state constitution the distribution requirement currently in effect because of a court ruling and an opinion by the state attorney general.
 
Going into 2019, 17 of the 26 states with an initiative or veto referendum process had a distribution requirement. Of the 17 with a distribution requirement, nine are Republican trifectas, five have divided government, and three are Democratic trifectas. Of the nine states with initiative or referendum processes but without a distribution requirement, four are Republican trifectas, and five are Democratic trifectas.  The most recent state to enact distribution requirements was Michigan in the state legislature’s 2018 lame duck session. The Idaho State Legislature passed a pair of bills earlier this month to increase the state’s initiative signature requirement and its distribution requirement, among other restrictions. Governor Brad Little (R) vetoed the bills, however, citing a fear that they would draw a lawsuit. Lawmakers in Arizona, Maine, and Missouri also considered or are considering distribution requirements during 2019 sessions.
 
Colorado was the state to most recently begin enforcing a distribution requirement. In 2016, voters approved Amendment 71, which was a citizen initiative enacting a distribution requirement (as well as a supermajority vote requirement) for initiated constitutional amendments requiring signature gathering to be spread out over all of the state’s 35 state senate districts. Since no initiated constitutional amendments were circulated in 2017, 2018 was the first election year in which the requirement was enforced. Three initiated constitutional amendments qualified for the 2018 ballot: (1) Amendment 73, designed to increase income taxes for higher income brackets to fund education; (2) Amendment 74, designed to require that property owners be compensated for any reduction in property value caused by state laws or regulations; and (3) Amendment 75, designed to increase campaign contribution limits if one candidate spends more than $1 million on his or her own campaign. None of the amendments were approved by voters. The average number of initiated constitutional amendments on the ballot in Colorado during even-numbered years since 2006 was four.
 
In the 17 states where there are distribution requirements for initiative petitions, the political jurisdiction upon which they are based varies. In seven states, the distribution requirement is spread out over a state’s counties (Arkansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, and Wyoming). In five states, it is calculated based on state legislative districts (Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Utah). In the other five states with a distribution requirement, it is based on U.S. congressional districts (Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Nevada). Washington, D.C., also has a distribution requirement based on city wards.
 
The 76 and 68 citizen-initiated measures across the country in 2016 and 2018, respectively, were well above the average of 49 per even-numbered year from 2008 through 2014. Moreover, new trends emerged such as elections policy and redistricting, Medicaid expansion, and renewable energy and were added to initiative staples such as marijuana, minimum wage, and taxes. With the increased initiative activity, state legislators have been giving the initiative process more attention, and one of the most common restrictions considered are distribution requirements.
 
Two factors go into determining how difficult a signature distribution requirement is to meet: (1) from what percentage of the jurisdictions must signatures be collected (i.e. from how much of the state must at least some signatures be collected) and (2) how large the requirement is in each jurisdiction (i.e. how evenly must the signature gathering be spread out across the state).
 
For an example of the first factor, Arkansas’ current requirement of 15 counties is 20 percent of the state’s total 75 counties, and HJR 1008 would increase that to 60 percent. Across the 17 states with initiative distribution requirement, the first factor ranges from 20 percent to 100 percent of the relevant jurisdictions. Michigan’s newly enacted distribution requirement features 50 percent distribution because it requires signatures to be collected from a minimum of seven out of 14 congressional districts.
 
The second factor concerning how evenly gathering must be spread out can be represented by how many of the total number of signatures required is needed to meet the distribution requirement. For example, to qualify for the Alaska 2020 ballot, a minimum of 14,963 signatures are required to just meet the distribution requirement in the state, which is 52.5 percent of the total signature requirement of 28,501. While in Arkansas, the current 2020 requirement mandates a rate of 10 percent for this second factor, and HJR 1008 would change that to 30 percent. This rate ranges from 10 percent to 100 percent among all 17 states with initiative distribution requirements.
 
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About the author

Josh Altic

Josh Altic is a project director at Ballotpedia and can be reached at josh.altic@ballotpedia.org

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