Learn BEFORE you vote. (Not an official website of American Fork City.)

Weaponizing Democracy: Petition and Referendum

A common complaint among candidates, when local elections roll around, is that the city council should send — or should have sent — the big questions to the voters, especially the big expenditures. We’ve adopted a Latin word for that vote: referendum.

The referendum process can be an important check by the people on misguided or dilatory local and state legislative bodies. There is no equivalent at the national level; some have advocated such a thing, but I never have. As firmly as I declare the people’s sovereignty in our governments, we’ve seen enough mischief achieved by referendum in states and municipalities that I have never warmed to the idea of a national referendum.

But back to earth. American Fork, to be precise. (Meanwhile, in Pleasant Grove, they’re collecting signatures through today to put a recent tax increase to a public vote.)

Cities are required by law to put certain bond issues to the voters. This happens when the bonds will have to be repaid from general funds, meaning tax revenues, which could mean a tax increase.

Most other actions, including bond issues to be repaid with other revenues, do not require the voters’ direct approval — but opponents can force a referendum by gathering enough signatures on a petition.

There’s a bit of a contradiction evident when someone running to be our elected representative wants to pull decisions away from our elected representatives and subject them to a popular vote. But I have a larger concern.

I’m sorry if this sounds cynical. If you’re tempted to believe that these referendum-touting candidates are animated by an abundance of democratic spirit and an overarching respect for the people’s collective wisdom, resist that. The motive is nearly always more political.

Here’s the short explanation. Well, short-ish.

It’s a Weapon

It’s relatively easy to force a city council action onto the ballot (as a referendum). You just need petitions with enough signatures from registered voters in the city. For most issues, “enough” is less than ten percent.

(If you study the process in state law, you’ll want to know that, for this purpose, American Fork is defined as a third-class municipality, because the population is between 30,000 and 65,000. This helps determine how many signatures you need.)

Just the threat or expectation that something will be forced to referendum can persuade City officials to delay, alter, or abandon action the City would otherwise take. If the City is undeterred and acts anyway, forcing a referendum offers opponents a few potential wins. All but the last are practically automatic.

First, filing an application for referendum delays implementation of whatever they’re trying to obstruct. This allows time for other measures, and a delay can turn into a win. An application for referendum requires five signatures.

Second, the process of gathering signatures is an opportunity to tell the public, home by home, just about anything that serves the petitioners’ political purposes. It doesn’t have to be true or even half-true, and in my experience in American Fork it often isn’t. It doesn’t have to be in context. And it certainly doesn’t have to include any opposing views.

I learned a long time ago that there are at least two sides to virtually every story, and judgment based on hearing just one side is premature and often wrong. But that’s real life. This is retail politics, alas.

Third, if they gather enough signatures, there is another delay (which is a partial win) while they are validated. If they have enough valid signatures, there’s yet another delay in implementing that thing they oppose, while the City (in this case) schedules an election.

For people of a particular temperament, there’s a bonus: validating signatures and conducting an election costs the City money. (Okay, it costs the taxpayers, whom the referendum proponents likely claim to defend, but what’s a little more money in pursuit of political rightness?)

Fourth, before the election there will be weeks or months to continue persuading people. As before, they can say just about anything. It doesn’t have to be true, half-true, in context, or even plausible. (A case in point: the organized opposition to the proposed 2013 road bond, which wasn’t forced onto the ballot by a petition but was a referendum, vividly illustrated the honesty problem.)

Meanwhile, the City itself is constrained. It can only inform, not advocate, and it gets in deep trouble if any of its information isn’t true. Such trouble rarely if ever happens to the opposition, when it proves to be truth-challenged.

That’s four small wins, if you’re counting, and we still don’t know how the vote will go. To this point opponents have delayed that thing they oppose for months, indoctrinated the voters, and imposed additional costs on their political opponents, the City. Which brings us to . . .

Fifth, if they win the vote, they get their way. The thing is blocked. Undone. Dead, at least until someone at the City tries to do it again, perhaps in a different way.

A Just Barely Hypothetical Sample Pitch

May I illustrate one of the problems I’ve mentioned? We’ll use the City’s fiber project, and I promise not to use any arguments I haven’t heard about this project or a mostly similar project the City explored pre-COVID.

The setting is your doorstep, and the cast of characters is “Not David” (because I don’t work this way) and “Not You,” because you’re too well informed for this to work, despite your kind and very human reluctance to say no.

Not David: Good afternoon! I’m carrying a petition. May I ask if you’re a registered voter at this address? If you’re not, I can help you register right now, so you can sign the petition.

Not You: Yes, I am. What’s your petition about?

Not David: We’re collecting signatures on a petition to force the city council to put its approval of a citywide broadband system on the ballot, so the voters can decide. May I tell you why that system is a bad idea?

(Not You nods.)

Not David: First of all, it will double your taxes — or triple them, if things don’t go as well as they’re estimating.

Second, it will provide a service to residents of American Fork which the private sector already provides, and we don’t think government should go into business in competition with the private sector.

Third, they approved all of this too quietly, including borrowing millions of dollars to pay for it. There should have been more public discussion.

Fourth, it’s against constitutional principles. There’s nothing in the United States Constitution which empowers the city council to set up a municipal broadband system.

Fifth, a lot of places have tried this. It never works, and taxpayers end up on the hook for it anyway.

And sixth, fiber is old technology anyway. It will be replaced by 5g, 6g, or even 10g before we’ve paid for half of it. Would you please sign the petition?

Not You: Absolutely. Thanks for doing this. Politicians are all scumbags, aren’t they?

Your Choice

Most people will sign it — either because a lot of us humans don’t like to say no to people’s faces, or because the arguments they just heard are fairly damning. They’ll get a nice, warm feeling inside, at least for a minute, because they did their civic duty and engaged in the public square. They’ll get a surge of adrenalin and maybe even endorphins, because they took a stand today against corruption and tyranny.

The problem is, all six of the reasons Not David just gave Not You contain an untruth. Even if they didn’t, you’ve still only heard one side of the issue. (Watch for a post on the fiber project soon.)

Here are some things you might say, because you’re wiser than Not You:

  • You: “I’ve studied this carefully, and I’m opposed to the project, but most of what you just said isn’t true. Come back sometime and argue from truth, and I’ll sign it.” OR
  • You: “I’ve studied this issue carefully, and most of what you just said isn’t true. I won’t be signing it. Thank you for asking.” OR
  • You: “I’d like to study this more carefully and hear more sides of the story. Suppose you come back in two or three weeks. By then I’ll know if I want to sign or not.”

There’s big bonus karma in this if you immediately communicate with your neighbors:

You: “Hey, this person is coming around with a petition, and I’m not sure what I’m hearing is true. I want to hear both sides. Let’s figure out this issue together before we sign anything. I’m not fond of being manipulated for someone’s political gain.”

There’s big bonus gratitude from me if you reach out to tell me about the petition — whatever the topic — and what they’re saying to sell it to you. Pull out your phone and snap a copy, at least for yourself (but not of others’ signatures, please).

Of course, all of this is hypothetical for now, but only just barely. The misleading arguments are real, have been used locally, and are common enough wherever municipal broadband proposals are a thing.

A Cheap Soundbite

At least one candidate in the current American Fork City Council race has listed several big issues he thinks should have been put to the voters:

  • a 2022 property tax increase (of which more soon), which mostly went to roads and to keeping public safety salaries competitive;
  • one or more of the City’s actions so far related to the fiber broadband project; and
  • a substantial bond issue for road improvements on the south side, along and near 200 West.

The deadline for applying for a referendum is seven days after the City takes an action, so none of these past actions could be subjected to referendum now. Future city council actions related to the fiber project could be.

Arguing now that something “should have been” put to a vote is getting a campaign soundbite on the cheap. A candidate doesn’t have to do anything about it in return.

He doesn’t have to file the papers or carry the petition. He probably doesn’t even have to explain why he didn’t attend the meetings or hearings, or file for a referendum within seven days, if this should have been put to the voters. (Or did he only decide it was that important when he decided to run for office?)

At very little cost to him, he gets a soundbite which sounds good to some voters. That’s not a small thing. Elections have turned this way.

Parting Thought

I’m not opposed to all referenda. I am opposed to referenda based on petitions people signed because they were misled or deceived. I’m opposed to hypothetical referenda in cheap campaign soundbites. And I rather like representative government.

That’s all for today. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Image credit: DALL·E with prompt “pencil and watercolor drawing of a man on the doorstep of a house with a clipboard talking to a woman standing in the doorway”


  1. Tori Bahoravitch

    Love your posts—the insight, commentary, and subtle(?) humor. You are spot on, as always.

  2. McKay Butterfield

    As David alluded, this won’t be hypothetical for long. Bountiful City experienced just about everything mentioned in this article a few months ago after their city council approved a municipal fiber project. The good news is they were able to defeat the paid (and dishonest) signature gathering effort: https://www.techdirt.com/2023/08/04/comcast-centurylink-fail-to-derail-community-owned-gigabit-fiber-network-in-bountiful-utah/

  3. Ted Reid

    I had an almost word for word conversation with a candidate for city council from your example. He wasn’t having me sign anything, but he told me (a few days before the primary election) that he and two others were running with the hopes of taking over a majority on the council so they could “roll back the shady dealings the current council made to push through the broadband without input”. I thanked him for his view, and pointed out that I felt there had been a large amount of input, surveys, questionnaires and involvement from citizens on that issue. It was surprising (and a bit sad) to me that he and the two others were taking that view on the events, as all three are distant acquaintances.