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November 09, 2005

Referendum on Referenda

Matt Singer makes, I think, a good point here:

Two years ago, I went on a rant following Schwarzenegger’s election about how politicians in California were using ballot issues to sidestep the legislative process. There has been an uptick in anti-initiative sentiment in recent years, a natural response to interest groups walking away from the legislative table in order to succeed independent of the system.

Now, to an extent, this is unfortunate. Nominally, even Schwarzenegger’s ballot issues were about reform, even if that reform all happened to structurally favor a single party. And there are good reasons to think that legislators won’t reform themselves, but it seems clearer that this is precisely what they want.

In Ohio, the Governor has a measly 19% approval rating (think Judy Martz) and scandals are present virtually all over the state. Yet the voters rejected four reform measures. In part, this shows how a machine dedicated to staying dirty can fight reform by voters just as effectively as it can fight reform in the statehouse.

But it also demonstrates, I think, that the best way to get reform is to elect reform Democrats.

Picking up your toys and stalking off to the voters really isn't proving itself a workable alternative.  Indeed, there's not much in the way of ballot initiatives, from any side, that seem to be faring well.  In Califronia, neither Prop 78 nor 79, initiatives doing exactly opposite things, passed.  Voters aren't evaluating these individually, they're making blanket judgments on the desirability of wading through long initiative ballots.  At this point, virtually the only initiative I'd vote for is one to get rid of initiatives.  It's not that the voters are bad folks, but they're not trained or experienced legislators, so some of what they approve on face value ends up have subtle and negative impacts down the road.  Happily, they seem to have figured this out, and are now rejecting the whjole process as a tool of special interests.  It's a shame, because legitimate initiative drives are a positive option, but this sort of cynical overuse is killing the whole medium.

November 9, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on Nov 10, 2005 8:49:51 AM


I've been of the opinion for a long time that initiatives as a whole are a bad idea. We have a Democratic Republic for a reason, and legislators are supposed to make the hard decisions and deeply examine issues and come to the best solution they can find. Individual voters to not have the time, and often don't have the ability to do that.

Certainly legislators fail in their responsibility at times, but that is a reason to replace them with someone else, not to try work around them.

The only exception I would have would be on votes about the process of choosing representitives themselves (redistricting for example.) That seems to be something that the people should be directly involved in, and I am sad that it failed both in California and Ohio.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Nov 9, 2005 2:16:04 PM

A problem with successful initiatives is that they're so difficult, once their problems become apparent down the road, to ammend. If the legislature passes a bill that has unforeseen consequences, it's not a large matter for the legislature to tweak it. It's not so easy for initiatives. It's a cumbersome process to amend previous initiatives by a new initiative and there are statutory and political roadblocks to fixing the problems by legislation.

Undemocratic as it sounds, I've with you on your suggestion, tongue in cheek though it may have been, to bring an initiative to eliminate the damn things.

Posted by: mrgumby2u | Nov 9, 2005 2:19:15 PM

How about an initiative to require paper ballots?

Posted by: bobbo | Nov 9, 2005 2:55:20 PM

The rise of the progressive-motivated initiative was a powerful and useful tool in moving toward intelligent and popular change in our political system. There are problems however, particularly in how few voters are needed to get an initiative qualified, the means of obtaining voter signitures, and how initiatives can be amended. Those problems can be fixed.

The baby doesn't have to go down the drain.

It is too easy to go the initiative route and too easy to manipulate the outcome through massive advertising by special interests. Fixing those problems should be a goal, not doing away with the initiative process.

OFF THREAD, but significant on health care:

Brad Delong posts Paul Krugman's latest column on Single Payer National Health Insurance. It is worth a read and some support from national health care advocates.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Nov 9, 2005 2:55:37 PM

The other big problem with initiatives (besides voter ignorance and capture by special interest) is that they're always presented in a vacuum. Voters are asked to vote on X, with no consideration of how passing X could affect other things, e.g. in the budget. Here in Washington state, we've had initiatives to cut taxes pass on the same ballot as initiatives to add services. It's madness. (See Kevin Drum on this subject.)

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, RN, PhD | Nov 9, 2005 3:18:21 PM

Tuesdays' results are ironic if you consider that the initiative, the referendum, and the recall were all started by Hiriam Johnson not only to break the power of the railroads and other powerful interests over the legislature, but to keep Democrats from gaining power in Sacramento. If you look at CA history, you can see it worked for a long time(There was only one Democrat elected as governor of CA before Edmund Brown won in 1958.

So Ahnuld takes what was suppose to be a weapon against the Democrats and their interests, 'fires' it, and like a Loony Tunes cartoon, is seen to have been the primary 'victim' of the weapon as the clouds of smoke waft away on the breeze....

Works for me!

Posted by: The Dark Avenger | Nov 11, 2005 3:19:54 AM

I think initiatives should be more like questionaires. Your vote only states how you'd like your representative to vote. But the intiative isn't binding or written into law. I know this sounds just like a glorified way of writing a simple letter to your congressman, but in some ways thats a good thing as it puts/keeps what could be an important issue in the limelight.

I can say, I'm a fan of some initiatives, such as the general law in MA, Prop 2 1/2.

Posted by: Adrock | Nov 11, 2005 9:57:38 AM

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