Voter Initiatives & Referenda

What is a Voter Initiative?

An initiative is a means to enact new laws or ordinances through a direct vote, rather than through a legislative body.  If enough voters sign a petition, the proposed initiative is placed on a ballot to be voted on.  If the initiative passes, it becomes law, just as if it were passed by a legislative body.

What is a Voter Referendum?

A referendum is a direct vote to repeal a law or ordinance that has been enacted by a legislative body. If enough voters sign a petition, a legislative act may be placed on a ballot, and the public will have an opportunity to repeal the legislation. If the referendum passes, the law is repealed and does not take effect.

Are Initiatives and Referenda Provided for in Utah Law?

Article VI, § 1 of the Utah Constitution provides that the people of the State have the right to initiate legislation through the initiative process, or require that laws enacted by a legislative body be subjected to a referendum.
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Title 20A, Chapter 7 of the Utah Code governs initiatives and referenda, and establishes the procedures and requirements for each.

What are the Requirement and Procedures for Initiatives and Referenda?

The procedures and requirements are too lengthy to discuss here.  Initiatives and referenda have separate requirements, and standards may vary depending upon the jurisdiction involved.  Please refer to Title 20A, Chapter 7 to determine specific requirements and procedures.
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The requirements must be met, including number of verified signatures on petitions, the language of the initiative or referendum, and the time frame to file and secure the needed number of signatures.  If the requirements are not met, then the initiative or referendum will not be submitted to the voters.

Which Jurisdictions Are Subject to Initiatives and Referenda?

The Utah Code provides for initiative and referenda processes for the State Legislature, Counties, and Cities.
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The Federal Government does not have an initiative or referendum process.

What May be Adopted Through the Initiative Process?

New laws or amendments to existing laws may be adopted through the initiative process. Significantly, an initiative may not be vetoed.  Policy matters, including such things as personnel decisions or contracts are administrative in nature, and not subjects for initiatives.
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An initiative may not enact a law that is unconstitutional, or which exceeds a government unit’s jurisdiction or authority.

What Types of Actions May be Submitted to Voters by a Referendum?

Any legislative act may be submitted to a vote through the referendum process.  This includes generally applicable statutes, laws, ordinances, regulations, etc.  In general,  legislative acts adopt new laws or amend existing ones, and involve evaluation of broad, competing policy considerations.
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In contrast, administrative (or executive) actions may not be submitted for a vote. Administrative actions apply existing laws in specific situations, and do not involve broad, competing policy considerations.

Are Land Use Ordinances Legislative Acts?

Yes.  Land Use and Zoning Ordinances are legislative acts that may be adopted by initiative, or reviewed by referendum.  This includes changes in zoning designations for areas, or even zoning changes applicable to individual properties.
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On the other hand, approvals for specific land uses or development are not legislative, but administrative in nature. This includes building permits, subdivision approval, development agreements, conditional use applications, variances, etc.

Cases on Initiatives and Referenda

Carter v. Lehi City, 2012 UT 2
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Cook v. Bell, 2014 UT 46
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Friends of Maple Mountain v. Mapleton City, 2010 UT 11— NOTE:  A significant part of the holding in this case was overruled by Carter v. Lehi.
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Krejci v. Saratoga Springs, 2013 UT 74
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Low v. City of Monticello. 2002 UT 90
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Sevier Power Co., LLC v. Sevier County, 2008 UT 72