Bob Bernick’s notebook: A bar set too high

 If there has ever been a more incompetent group of employees than those working in the Utah County Clerks office, it’s hard to imagine who or where.

We now learn that dozens (around 90) of Count My Vote signature petition packets were ‘misplaced’ by the clerk employees and never counted or verified.

The good news is that the packets were boxed up and sent to the Utah Elections Office, where the error was detected.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has ordered the county clerk to count/verify the thousands of signatures on those “missing packets” and explain to him in writing how this screw up happened. Good luck with that.

This is the same group of people who “accidentally” sent out 68,000 GOP primary ballots to non-Republicans in the 2017 special U.S. House Republican primary.


I’m not saying the clerk’s office on purpose sent out those ballots to independent voters, who can’t vote in the primary.

Nor am I saying the clerk employees didn’t count the Count My Vote signatures on purpose.

After all, the signature packets were sent to the state Elections Office, as they were supposed to be. They just weren’t counted, as they were supposed to be.

So it appears this latest episode was just an error – like the 2017 foul-up.

But for Clerk Bryan Thompson this is just another black eye for his office.

Thompson was voted out of office last month by delegates to the Utah County GOP convention.

Just as well.

And well done by the delegates – which in part made up for their terrible decision on appointing a really bad GOP county commissioner a while back.

So there could be a house cleaning, under a new boss, in the Utah County Clerks Office come next year.

But all the citizen initiative ballot craziness this year shows reforms are needed to the process by the Utah Legislature.

The bar for getting an initiative on the ballot is too high – 113,000 voter signatures statewide, with 10 percent of voters in 26 of 29 state Senate districts.

It is the latter requirement – more than a supermajority of Senate districts – that’s the real problem.

As CMV and the medical marijuana initiative backers are now finding out, a well-funded group opposing the initiatives can – and may – end up frustrating the will of the 113,000 by getting a few hundred of the petition signers in a semi-rural/rural area to take their names off of the original petitions.

All the money spent, all the volunteer hours worked, all for nothing if opponents can get a hundred, maybe a few dozens, of petition signers to remove their names.

It may well be that CMV, the MM folks, or others go to court this year seeking redress.

And it could come down to a Utah Supreme Court decision on the matter.

I recall some years back when the high court – in striking down part of the old law on initiative petitions – warned lawmakers that making the initiative process too onerous would lead to court intervention.

In short, a too-high petition signature bar would, in effect, take away the state constitutional-allowed guarantee that citizens could make law – if legislators refused to act on their behalf.

This is exactly what is happening this year with the four initiatives that have – preliminarily – reached the signature-gathering thresholds.

In fact, I’m hoping someone does sue.

For the lawmakers – who really hate the initiative process, for it makes them look like they are not passing laws citizens really, really want – would never act on their own to adopt an independent redistricting commission, or fully expand Medicaid under Obamacare, or legalize medical marijuana, or protect the dual-pathway for primary candidates.

The Legislature has, of course, had opportunities to do all four of the above – which are now citizen initiative petitions.

They have refused to adopt full Medicaid expansion; they have refused to adopt an independent redistricting commission; they have refused to provide medical marijuana for Utah’s sickest, even dying, citizens.

And while the 2014 Legislature did adopt the compromise SB54 – setting up the dual pathway candidate process – ever since lawmakers have been looking to gut or repeal it.

Lawmakers, beyond about anything else, seek to protect their own powers – their own importance, if you will.

Citizen initiative petitions take that power away and give it to voters.

Now, citizen initiatives should be few and far between. But they should be available to average citizens who see their own Legislature refusing to act on important matters.

This year four initiatives could make the ballot – a record number if Count My Vote and the medical marijuana efforts survive the attempts by opponents to decertify them.

The final public campaign on any initiative should be at the ballot box – not with someone knocking on your door at night demanding you take your name off of a petition you already signed – telling you god knows what about the initiative you originally thought was a good idea.

The Utah Supreme Court may be able to act in the best interest of the voters on this matter – where it is clear the Utah Legislature, protecting its own power, won’t.

Meanwhile, the Utah County Clerks Office, as well as several other clerks in outlying counties, need to get their act together, quickly and accurately count the petition signatures in their care, and rebuild confidence in the public’s eye that their signatures and votes are counted accurately and fairly.