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Big changes needed in initiative process

Posted: Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Regardless of the outcome of Ballot Measure No. 1 -- the proposed constitutional amendment banning initiatives affecting wildlife -- major changes are needed in Alaska's provision for voter-enacted laws.

The concept of allowing voters to bypass legislatures and enact statutes using the ballot box took root in American politics at the turn of the century. Between 1880 and 1915, 19 states embraced the initiative process, which was seen as providing a public check on the corrupting influence wielded over politicians by oil barons, railroads and other special interests.

Today, Alaska is one of 24 states open to initiative-spawned legislation.

To place an initiative on the ballot, sponsors are required to gather signatures on approved petitions from 10 percent of the voters participating in the previous general election, including representation from two-thirds of the state's 40 election districts. These standards might seem adequate to ensure broad grassroots support. But recent developments in the financing and marketing of ballot measures have exposed great room for abuse.

Gathering of signatures on petitions once was conducted on a voluntary basis -- further demonstrating the popular interest in an initiative proposal. Today, the task often is handled by paid professionals. Worse, there is no requirement for disclosing the identity of the individuals or groups bankrolling the signature-gathering effort.

Success obtaining signatures from, say, 40,000 registered voters, often is touted as proof the resulting ballot measure has broad support. But how hard is it really to collect signatures when the solicitor is being paid $1 or more apiece? The personal incentive lends itself to deception as witnessed by an incident this spring involving a Native woman gathering initiative signatures under alleged false pretenses during the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.

The public remains completely in the dark concerning how much is being spent to place ballot measures before voters. It's unknown as well where that money is being raised. In our view, that's an open invitation for Outside interests with no stake in Alaska to make use of our elections in furtherance of their own private agendas.

Campaign financing rules don't apply until after Alaska's lieutenant governor certifies a proposed ballot measure for placement before voters. Even then, there is no limit on what any individual or group can spend on campaigns mounted for or against a proposal. While disclosure of the names of individual or group donors is required, parties that wish to conceal their involvement can easily do so by contributing through other individuals or groups.

Given the lack of any meaningful fund-raising rules and the effectiveness of today's well-crafted TV commercial campaigns, the process is increasingly subject to abuse by the sort of special interests the initiative concept first was developed to counter.

A few suggestions for reform:

Alaska's campaign disclosure laws must be extended to cover the signature-gathering period.

Use of paid signature gatherers should be prohibited.

Strict limits must be placed on the dollars, or in-kind donations, allowable from any individual contributor or group.

Last and, perhaps, most important, an absolute ban on Outside contributions.

-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Oct. 20



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