Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Ballot Initiatives, or Not

Who could possibly be against voters voting? Isn’t that democracy in action?

That seems to be the crux of the argument in favor of ballot initiatives. Yet as so many simple ideas, it has pluses and minuses, supporters and detractors, and most of all caveats.

Whether the subject is marriage laws or any other important issue, saying that the registered voters should decide is obvious and tempting. Occasionally it has worked well and often poorly, very poorly.

The principle entered into the United States formally in 1777 in Georgia’s constitution and similarly into Massachusetts law. Even our revered John Adams those centuries ago saw both the importance of a citizen check on legislative excess and that of making an override referendum difficult.

From the beginning, citizens had to get voter signatures on petitions, and then get the legislature to support the ballot question in two successive sessions for an amendment. The idea was that passion and petulence would wane, leaving the resulting vote more sensible.

Perhaps it is not at all odd that extremists on all fronts are wont to scream, “Let the voters decide!” when their issues are at stake.

Living in a country that prides itself as the model of democracy and populism, we should not be surprised when one interest group after another demands a vote on a particular law. Yet, caution should be the guide here, as some of the next few posts will claim.

Among the key considerations are:
  • Representative democracy. We have legislatures for reasons, not the least of which is that we expect them to consider long-term and interrelated effects of each law.
  • Checks and Balances. Loonies can blather about activist judges or excessive lawmakers, but we have learned that they mean they want their way on a given issue regardless of consequences or fairness.
  • Ratholes. At their worst, hotheaded referendum drives can bankrupt states, cripple education and social programs, and strip classes of Americans of civil rights.
  • Unenlightened Self-Interest. A dangerous trend is for corporate groups and special interest groups to drive initiative that benefit them.
  • Bait and Switch. Unscrupulous professional signature gathering firms in Massachusetts and elsewhere have filled their petitions by lying to voters about what the referendum means, short-circuiting the intent of citizen overrides.
This is one of five parts of ballot initiatives (LITE). Part two is here.

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