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U.S. Supreme Court Blocks State Move to Restrict Ballot Initiatives

By Joan Biskupic
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a state's aggressive effort to regulate ballot initiatives, in a decision extolling the free speech rights of people who circulate such petitions and sending a strong warning to legislators who try to rein them in.

In a split decision, the justices rejected Colorado's requirements that people who circulate petitions wear identification badges, be registered voters in the state and be subject to requirements on how much they were paid to collect signatures.

The decision is likely to be carefully evaluated by states lawmakers around the country who have been overwhelmed in recent years by a flurry of ballot initiatives designed to buck the political status quo. The initiatives are permitted in 24 states and Washington, D.C., and have been used to rewrite state laws governing everything from term limits and tax caps to gay rights and the legality of assisted suicide.

But as the populist tool has developed into a multi-million-dollar industry dominated by professional firms and powerful national lobbyists, states increasingly are trying to devise ways of regulating the process. And Colorado, which has seen an abundance of initiatives on the ballot this decade, has been at the forefront of that effort.

In their decision Tuesday, the justices made clear that regardless of how commercialized the process has become, they still view the initiatives as an important form of free speech.

"The First Amendment requires us to be vigilant " Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court, "to guard against undue hindrances to political conversations and the exchange of ideas."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented from the ruling entirely. Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen G. Breyer dissented only on the portion of the opinion striking down voter registration and financial disclosure requirements.

Dissenting justices, as well as a Colorado official, warned that the ruling would make it harder for states to protect the integrity of petition drives. But advocates of the process said the decision safeguards an important access that citizens have to the political process.