A distribution requirement is a legislative or state constitutional mandate requiring that petitions for a ballot measure must be signed by voters from different political subdivisions – such as counties – in order for the ballot measure to qualify for the ballot. Distribution requirements have been struck down in five states, and are currently under legal challenge in three.
Supporters of distribution requirements argue that they are a way of demonstrating “widespread support” for a ballot measure because registered voters from a variety of political subdivisions signed petitions for the ballot measure. In reality, these requirements diminish the voice of voters in certain districts while unfairly amplifying the voice of voters in others.
Distribution requirements can significantly drive up the cost of petition drives by forcing signatures to be collected in sparsely populated areas. Federal courts have ruled that these requirements are so onerous on the free speech rights of petition proponents that they violate the constitution. In addition, courts have ruled that distribution requirements violate the equal protection clause – one person, one vote – because they require distribution over subdivisions that aren’t equal in population. Distribution requirements have been struck down in Illinois, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and twice in Nevada.
Distribution Requirements and the Courts
Marijuana Policy Project v. Miller – United States District Court in 2007 found that Nevada’s requirement that signatures be gathered in each county in the state was virtually identical to another Nevada distribution requirement ruled unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
ACLU v. Lomax – United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003 struck down Nevada’s requirement that petition signatures come from 13 of the state’s 17 counties, noting that the requirement was identical to the one struck down in Cenarrusa.
Montana PIRG v. Johnson – United states District Court in 2003 ruled that Montana’s county-based distribution requirement was unconstitutional.
Gallivan v. Walker - Utah Supreme Court in 2001 struck down that state’s county-based distribution requirement, declaring that the initiative right is a “fundamental right implicit in a free society” and that the distribution requirement impinged on it.
Idaho Coalition United for Bears v. Cenarrusa – United States District Court in 2001 Idaho’s distribution requirement for initiatives was unconstitutional on the grounds that the restrictions violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In 2003, the decision was appealed by the state of Idaho to United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
Moore v. Ogilvie – United States Supreme Court in 1969 struck down an Illinois’s county-based distribution requirement saying that it “applies a rigid, arbitrary formula to sparsely settled counties and populous counties alike, and thus discriminates against the residents of the populous counties in the exercise of their political rights in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”