Monday, November 3, 2008

Ballot Measures: Joe the Voter Shoulders the Heaviest Lifting Again

Although the practice of direct democracy began primarily with constitutional amendments, it has become more prevalent as our representatives in government have failed at their work. Once again the common man must do the heavy lifting.

Proposition 8, in some ways fits the historic reason for direct democracy through a referendum or ballot initiative process. Referendums have always been part of American democracy. Massachusetts held a referendum to approve its new constitution in 1780. By 1850 it was becoming standard practice to hold a referendum when amending a state constitution (Eclipse of Legislatures USC Research Computing Facility 2004). As sad as it is that the Supreme Court of California made an amendment to the State Constitution of California an all too provident and necessary process, Proposition 8 is a tried and true way for the citizens of a state to decide the nature of their governments.

Although a state constitution is not simply laws, it is more important because it forms the basis upon which our state laws can and should be made, or it is a set of limits on our governments saying what kinds of laws it may not make. It is very important then, that such a foundation for laws is expressed in simple words that make total sense. "A marriage is between a man and a woman makes" makes total sense. There are a few things implied rather than explicitly stated because we don't want to have to wash our children's mouth out with soap after they recite their sixth grade homework to us. Still, the words are plain and foundational. They make sense and allow little room for disagreement. On the other hand, a constitutional amendment that said that marriage was NOT between a man and a woman would be an unsound amendment because it does not plainly lay a clear foundation for the laws of California. When the people affirm what marriage is, the people set family law in California on a clearly understood idea. Other laws, including those for our schools and for civil unions will then have a firm and clear basis on which to build.

On the other hand, the other reasons we really need to pass Proposition 8 all too clearly reflect the reasons that there are more referendums on more state ballots this Tuesday than at almost any other time in our nation's history. Historically, referendums became more prevalent because of the failure of our representative form of government, in its executive, legislative, and judicial form, to do its jobs. A wave of defaults in the 1800's led to the requirements for a popular vote in 21 states (Kiewiet and Szakaly 1996). That sounds familiar doesn't it? Our national representatives as a group, including Diane Fienstein, allowed lending practices to go haywire. They did this because it was inconvenient to take a difficult position that might upset some important colleagues or more powerful constituents. This goes on, it seems, all the time in Washington. No one wants to hurt anyone's feelings. They will say "yes" whenever possible because that is how one gets reelected. People don't get reelected by saying "no." Hence, the tough job of financial responsibility has become more and more often left to the citizens. The states that require bond measures to be ratified by a referendum process have less state spending and more decentralized spending than those that do not (Eclipse).

One of the problems with representative democracy is that our representatives in the legislature "logroll", that is, they trade votes when they make a decision on behalf of their constituents. If one of our representatives needs a block of votes to approve, let's say, a new hospital in a certain municipality, they will trade their support on another issue. Hence, the majority of voters are not served by either vote. Many citizens recognize that "earmarking" in the national budget process is the current epitome of the evils of logrolling. In fact, even public policy positions taken by our representatives are often suspect. Our representatives will change positions on areas important to those who voted for them, or those whose union dues they spend. A recent national survey conducted for the Initiative & Referendum Institute at USC asked: "All other things being equal, which do you think is most likely to produce laws that are in the public interest: when the law is adopted by the legislature or when the voters adopt the law? Sixty-six percent of respondents selected "voters" compared to 20% that selected "the legislature"1. The pattern held for men and women, across all age groups, and for whites, blacks, and other ethnic groups.

Hence, direct democracy, the referendum process, has become more necessary and more popular because the representatives of the people have lost our respect. When we go to the polls on Tuesday in California, then, may we let common sense rule. It is in our best interest not to listen to authority figures like the Superintendent of Public schools who contradicted his own website on the issue of whether or not students will be taught that homosexual marriages are excellent at the age of seven. Nor should we allow authority figures that have a history of spinelessly saying "yes" to every spending measure imaginable harangue us about fairness. If you can't figure out what rights are unfairly jeopardized by affirming what a marriage actually is, consider the sources the budgets and the taxes that also make no sense. Once again, the tough job of laying the firm foundation for the future of California will come down to us. If you aren't sure what a proposal is asking, say "no." If you aren't sure what a marriage is if it is not between a man and a woman, vote "Yes" on 8.

1. The survey was conducted by Portrait of America. It can be found in Waters (2003) and on the web site of the Initiative & Referendum Institute (

No comments: