Thursday, July 28, 2005

Ballot Initiatives, Too Many?

So, who dislikes ballot initiatives?

The top of the list seems to be legislators. That can cut two ways. First and from the same emotional basis that fosters most initiatives, a petition that forces the legislators to act takes away their power. Interest groups that want an initiative often decry this as the real reason legislators oppose a ballot question.

On the other hand, the lawmakers are the ones in for the long-term. They know what it takes to adhere to a budget and weigh the effect of one law against others. They answer to more than a one-issue group.

A detailed study of initiatives appeared three years ago. It was conducted for an interested party, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). While some may argue that this taints the largely negative conclusions, the report is balanced and empirical. It also includes views of those who favor initiatives.

Note:
You can read the NCSL magazine article on the report. On the same site, you can look at annual reports of ballot initiatives, such as the 2004 one.

Rhetorical question 2: So, do Americans, who have worldwide notoriety for low voter turnout, really like the reactionary ballot initiative?

You betchem, Red Ryder.

So far, the peak was in the last decade, but the trend had been up since the 1970s. Nationwide, the trend was:
  • 183 in the 1970s
  • 253 in the 1980s
  • 383 in the 1990s
Not only had the number more than doubled in that period. Oregon and California together accounted for almost 30% of all ballot initiatives.

According to the NCSL report, the Populist and Progressive movements fostered rapid increases in the number of states permitting ballot initiatives. By 1918, the number had grown to 19. Since then, five more have added the process, the last being Mississippi in 1992.

Of the politicians in favor, New York State Senator Michael Nozzolio captures their thoughts best. "Initiative and referendum represents the very core of democracy. It ensures that all people have a voice in the democratic process. It is an idea grounded in the belief that power ultimately rests in the hands of the people."

That's powerful stuff and hard to counter, expect in states where initiatives may cripple the government.

Americans model the human desire for simple answers. That's just what makes some ballot initiatives so destructive. They reduce complex choices to overly simplified, out-of-context, often emotionally based yes/no voting.

"Voters don't have to make the same kinds of tough decisions legislators face in balancing competition needs for limited resources," said NCLS I&R Reform Task Force member, Oregon Rep. Lance Shetterly. "The legislature may acknowledge an issue as a priority, but, in the face of an upcoming revenue shortfall and with existing programs and services to fund, it just isn't always possible to fund a new program. Then the initiative comes along and does it anyway. It puts the legislature in a box, having to meet newly mandated needs as well as existing ones."

Coming up, who benefits from initiatives, and then are there ways to improve ballot initiatives?

This is part three of five. Part four is here. Part one is here.

Numerical Afterthought: By the bye, as of this week, California alone has these initiatives and propositions on tap:
  • 1 Superseded by court order
  • 7 Qualified for 11/8/5 special election
  • 1 Qualified for 6/6/6 primary election
  • 1 Qualified for 11/7/6 general election
  • 65 Circulating (yes, 65)
  • 9 Pending action by the Attorney General
You can get the particulars here.

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