Bill would leave petition-passers babbling like lunatics

Submitted by Bill St. Clair on Mon, 28 May 2001 10:03:24 GMT
THE LIBERTARIAN, By Vin Suprynowicz
Bill would leave petition-passers babbling like lunatics

When margarine was first introduced, decades ago, dairy producers verged on panic over the prospect of a supposedly healthier and less fattening substitute for butter -- cheaper and virtually indistinguishable from "the real thing," to most people's minds -- suddenly showing up in the neighborhood dairy case.

The lobbyists promptly went to work, and in states where the dairy industry held the greatest political sway -- primarily in the Midwest -- means were quickly found to make the "new alternative" considerably less attractive.

Margarine was never banned outright. Nothing that blatant would have been likely to withstand a court challenge.

And the most outrageous proposals -- requiring manufacturers to dye their naturally white product an unappetizing purple or green to "make clear its vegetable origins" -- didn't last long. But in many states the Legislatures did indeed outlaw the sale of margarine already dyed the color of butter, requiring housewives for many years to go through the ritual of opening a small, enclosed packet of orange dye and stirring it into their bought-white margarine to give it a more appetizing appearance ... all in a blatant protection racket to minimize the new product's impact on the dairymen's bottom line.

Such rackets go far beyond merely prosecuting people who write "butter" on a package of margarine. They're a blatant abuse of the legislative process for the selective benefit of an established few, all the more scurrilous because their sponsors rarely admit what they're really up to, instead gushing endless double-talk about "protecting and informing members of the public who may not be careful enough to do their own research."

Take, for example, Assembly Bill 164, currently pending before the Nevada Legislature.

Article I Section 9 of the Nevada Constitution directs that "Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects being responsible for the abuse of that right; and no law shall be passed to restrain the liberty of speech or of the press. ..."

Article 19, Section 2 of that same state Constitution informs us that "The people reserve to themselves the power to propose, by initiative petition, statutes and amendments to statutes and amendments to this constitution."

In reality, however, the hoops through which earnest Nevadans must jump to place such initiatives on the ballot are already fairly onerous -- many such efforts fail despite substantial funding and the collection of more than enough signatures statewide, due to an arbitrary requirement that the same percentage of registered voters must sign a measure in 13 of the state's 19 counties ... including the sparsely populated cow counties. (Imagine being told Kenny Guinn got more than enough votes to win the governorship statewide, but will not be allowed to take up the office because he failed to carry little Esmeralda County.)

But now, it appears that even those restrictions are leaving the Nevada peasantry too many opportunities to make or amend their own laws. That is to say, a few such initiative petitions actually still find their way onto the ballot, causing all kinds of embarrassment to lawmakers who have smugly insisted for years they were only "representing the desires of their constituents" while nefariously blocking access to medical marijuana and the like.

So now come Assembly members Cegavske, Nolan, Bache, Beers, Giunchigliani, Goldwater, et al., with a proposal to make the placing of any further citizen initiatives on the Nevada ballot a virtual impossibility.

First, AB 164 stipulates "A person who attempts to obtain the signature of a voter on a petition for initiative or referendum ... shall disclose to the voter whether the person is being paid to obtain signatures on the petition before the person requests that the voter sign the petition.

Then, "before the voter signs the petition," the petition passer would be required to "(a) Accurately describe to the voter the effect the initiative or referendum will have upon the law of this state; and (b) Provide to the voter: (1) A comprehensive summary of the initiative or referendum, in writing, that has been approved by the secretary of state pursuant to this section; (2) Written instructions describing the procedure through which the voter may request the removal of his name from the petition, including, without limitation, the deadline for requesting the removal of his name; (3) A form prescribed by the secretary of state that the voter may use to request the removal of his name from the petition; and (4) A written summary of the requirements of this paragraph."

Let's get real. Nevada already requires that "Each referendum petition and initiative petition shall include the full text of the measure proposed." Any voter asked to sign a petition has every right to stop and read the entire text, or else withhold his or her signature. But the reality is that petition-passers are lucky to be allowed time to proclaim a one- or two-sentence summary of what they're offering before a shopper makes a snap decision whether to pause at the store entrance to scrawl her signature.

Requiring petition-passers to push multiple forms into busy shoppers' hands while droning out some lengthy summary of their proposal, word-for-word as pre-approved by the Secretary of State -- after being required to introduce themselves with the statement, "Hi, I'll get a buck for every signature I gather out here tonight" -- constitutes "compelled political speech and is unconstitutional," objects Janine Hansen, experienced petitioner and state president of the Nevada Eagle Forum.

Ms. Hansen is correct. This legislation can have no purpose but to virtually eliminate the constitutional safety valve provided through direct citizen access to the ballot -- leaving petition passers droning out their absurd mandated speeches like so many lunatics shouting at the backs of rapidly vanishing passers-by -- all justified under the bogus contention that some government watchdog must "protect us" from accidentally signing something we didn't bother to read.

As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Thomas Vs. Collins (1945): "The very purpose of the First Amendment is to foreclose public authority from assuming a guardianship of the public mind. ... In this field every person must be his own watchman for truth, because the forefathers did not trust the government to separate the true from the false for us."

AB 164 should be committed to the shredder. And its many sponsors should be duly ashamed.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter by sending $72 to Privacy Alert, 1475 Terminal Way, Suite E for Easy, Reno, NV 89502. His book, "Send in the Waco Killers:" is available at 1-800-244-2224.

Vin Suprynowicz,

"When great changes occur in history, when great principles are involved, as a rule the majority are wrong. The minority are right." -- Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926)

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and thus clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." -- H.L. Mencken

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