Friday, July 29, 2005

Ballot Initiatives, Best You Can Buy

In what should be a pure form of democracy —– on par with town meeting —– has been repeatedly abused. Ballot initiatives are now a muddle of real citizen drives and hijacked versions by corporations and political extremistmasqueradingng as local groups. Even those who favor the concept are rapidly becoming gun-shy.

One analysis, by the Freedom Forum, states:
...In practice, voter initiatives are provoking complaints from a growing number of skeptics.

In some states, including initiative hotbed California, activist citizens say special interest groups and politically ambitious millionaires have hijacked the process. In others, legislators who resent being circumvented are erecting ever-higher hurdles for signature-gatherers, or, as in the case of Massachusetts, simply ignoring proposals that win public approval...
We can look to 1976 for the catalyst, based in the U.S. Supreme Court's Buckley v. Valeo decision. This declared that money spent to affect elections is free speech. Basically, it instantly became okay for companies or wealthy individuals to flood a market with advertising, contributions and other efforts to buy an election.

The effects are widespread. For example, in 2003, Wal-Mart hired professional signature gatherers to put an initiative on a California ballot to permit its big boxes where local regulations forbade them. An article on this type of campaign appears here.

Note: Jeff Milchen's Reclaim Democracy group has a lot of information and reform ideas. Search the Net for him or his group, or start directly at

Here in Massachusetts, we have had everyone accusing the other of unfair practices. Legislators have used procedural tricks for not putting a question on the ballot. On the other hand, special interest groups failed in efforts using professional petition circulators. There was widespread fraud, both in manufactured signatures and in bait-and-switch techniques of lying to voters about what they were signing.

In the states with ballot initiatives, few want to throw them out. However, many would like to reform them.

For example, a recent effort by legislators to reveal the top-ten contributors and those putting over $5,000 into an initiative campaign met with swift, cynical resistance. The ruse was that if you signed a petition, your name, address and phone number would be posted on the Net. You'd be flooded with harassing calls from the other side. While clearly lies, these were effective.

Such defeats are not likely to dampen the fires of those who want to modulate ballot initiatives. On the other hand, there is little question that there is a lot of emotion tied up and that all sides are not afraid to tap into it.

This is part four of five. The last part is here. Part one is here.

Coming up, reform options.

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