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Is radio ad meant to mislead Utah voters?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 7:08 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Political experts are scratching their heads over an advertisement airing on KSL radio that encourages Utahns to vote against all four proposed amendments to the state constitution on the ballot.

The ad, paid for by a group called Save Our Utah Constitution, refers to the state constitution as being "inspired" and accuses "some people" of wanting to "put things in the Constitution that don't belong there."

Only once in the 30-second ad does the woman who voices the spot use the term "Utah Constitution." The document twice is referred to as "our constitution" and another time as "the constitution." The ad concludes with the woman asking voters to "please join us in voting to keep our constitution as it is. Vote against the constitutional amendments."

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the ad takes "a real curious approach."

"It appears they may be hoping that some portion of the voters won't make the distinction between the U.S. and Utah constitutions," Jowers said.

Save Our Utah Constitution doesn't appear to have a website, and the two men listed as primary officers on the statement of organization submitted when the ad was placed — Robert Warner of Salt Lake City and K.J. Hoyt of West Valley City — did not respond to several messages left for them by the Deseret News and KSL radio.

The group's silence raises questions about the ad and the motivation behind it. Is the group trying to channel a patriotic or even religious allegiance to the U.S. Constitution in order to defeat a specific proposed amendment to the state constitution? And if so, how likely is it that Utahns will be misled by the ad?

"It's probably a reasonable bet that there's a sizable percentage of the population who wouldn't be able to distinguish between the Utah and U.S. constitutions in this capacity," Jowers said.

Daniel JH Greenwood, a former professor at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law who's now serving in a similar capacity at Hofstra, co-authored "Utah's Constitution: Distinctively Undistinctive," which was included in "The Constitutionalism of American States" and published in 2006 by University of Missouri Press.

To say the Utah Constitution was "inspired," Greenwood said, would be both inaccurate and inappropriate.

"The Utah Constitution in its original form was copied almost verbatim from the most recent constitutions that had been approved by the U.S. Congress," he wrote in an e-mail to the Deseret News. "The Utah Constitutional Convention was quite worried that the Congress would once again reject statehood for Utah and wanted to make sure that all unnecessary points of conflict with Congress were avoided."

State constitutions — and even the U.S. Constitution — were written by men in times of deep political conflicts, and those documents reflect human compromises and errors, Greenwood said.

"These are not divine instruments, and the frequent and numerous amendments reflect that," he said. "The Utah Constitution, incidentally, has been amended regularly and massively."

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve, in 1992 referred to fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution as "divinely inspired." But while speaking last month as part of Utah's Constitution Day Celebration, he again listed the four principles — popular sovereignty, division of powers in a federal system, the Bill of Rights and separation of powers — but referred to them as "the great fundamental principles of our Constitution."

"In an earlier setting, under church sponsorship, I referred to these fundamentals as the divinely inspired principles in the Constitution, and I here affirm my belief that they are," Elder Oaks said during the Sept. 17 event. "But in this setting of a community program, I will only refer to these as the great fundamental principles of our Constitution."

When speaking about those four fundamental principles, Elder Oaks only referenced the Utah Constitution when discussing separation of powers — and even then he did so only collectively as "state constitutions."

Of the four proposed state constitutional amendments on the ballot this year, only two of them — amendments A and D — have gotten much attention.

Amendment A would modify the scope of the secret ballot requirement, specifying that elections currently required to be by secret ballot include elections under state or federal law for public office, initiatives and referendums, and those to designate or authorize employee or individual representation.

Amendment D would establish a five-member legislative ethics commission to conduct independent reviews of complaints alleging unethical legislative behavior.

For an organization to be against all proposed amendments on the ballot would be unusual, Jowers said.

"It's not like they're all peas in a pod," he said.

Greenwood notes that amendments to the Utah Constitution happen just about every year, and the state Legislature even has a Constitutional Revision Commission to propose amendments to keep the document up to date.

"There is nothing strange or unusual about amending the Utah Constitution," he said.

Text of radio ad

"My mom taught me some basic things I teach my kids, too. Work hard. Be kind. Respect our heritage. Now I find out that some people are trying to change our Utah Constitution. They want to put things in the Constitution that don't belong there. My parents taught me that our Constitution is inspired. I believe that. Please join us in voting to keep our Constitution as it is. Vote against the constitutional amendments."

— Paid by Save Our Utah Constitution

e-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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