Saturday, July 30, 2005

Ballot Initiatives, Now What?

We hold that except for the self-interested and the benighted, folk who think at all about ballot initiatives realize that some fine-tuning is required. Not many would dump them entirely. On the other hand, abuses over the past several decades call for reform.

One short list of such reforms came in a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures' Initiative and Referendum Task Force. These include:
  • Increase the requirements for disclosure of money spent on initiatives
  • Adopt an indirect initiative process and create incentives to encourage its use
  • Provide incentives for using volunteer signature-gatherers, such as requiring fewer signatures
  • Improve voter education on initiatives, including ballot pamphlets and public hearings
  • Impose a single subject requirement for initiative proposals
The indirect initiative is in place in eight states, including Massachusetts. It provides that initiatives that get enough signatures go the legislature for putting on the ballot as is, amending, or discarding. From recent experience here, when the last option is used, there is weeping, wailing, cursing and teeth gnashing.

As for educated voters, what can we expect from a majority who do not vote and who get their news not from newspapers and magazines but from snippets on TV and the Net? We doubt many could or would analyze a petition put before them at Stop & Shop, much less enter the voting booth with an understanding of the ramifications of a special-interest amendment.

On the other hand, restricting petition signature gathering is promising. Getting the ballot initiative groups to train and use volunteers would provide several benefits. First, it would help insure that actual citizens, not hired clipboards, folk who know and care about the subject do the work. This means that it becomes a citizens' initiative as intended. Perhaps as important, this will distribute the knowledge of the topic, perhaps to the point that voters can make an informed decision.

While corporations and narrowly focused interest groups do not like that, it is what this form of pure democracy is supposed to be. Truth be told, most voters are most comfortable with the status quo. They is why some reactionary initiatives successfully rescind progressive legislation.

Yet it is the role of the three branches of government at both state and federal levels to lead (but not too fast mind you). One way or another, we ended up with manumission, suffrage for the poor, for women and for black Americans, public education, guaranteed civil rights for various sets of the public and any number of other improvements.

Very few of these bubbled up from the public. More often, ballot initiatives try to slow down progress, particularly if it costs money.

  • For more detail, see Ballot Initiative Strategy Center on the role of Populism on initiatives here.
  • Also, the Institute for Humane Studies has a multi-page history of and perspective on the process here.

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

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