* Gov't Fears Citizen's Initiatives
- J.A.I.L. News Journal
Los Angeles, California July 25, 2001Government Fears Citizen's Initiatives(Seeks to destroy the process and thwart the will of the people)A jewel in the crown of American self-government
By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Staff, 6/7/2001
IN THE TWO-year political cycle that culminated on Election Day 2000, some 350 initiative petitions were submitted to election officials in the 24
states that permit laws to be passed at the ballot box. Of those 350, only
76 made it onto the ballot. And of those 76, only 36 were adopted. Of all
the initiatives proposed for the 2000 election, in other words, 90 percent
ended in failure.
In the same 24 states, meanwhile, more than 10,000 laws were enacted by
state legislators. Totals for the 2000 cycle aren't yet available, but
according to the Council of State Governments, lawmakers in the 24
direct-democracy states passed 11,000 laws in the 1998 cycle, and a whopping 17,000 in the two years before that.
It's hard to imagine that anyone could look at those numbers - 36 laws
created by ballot initiative versus 10,000 or more created by state
legislatures - and conclude that initiatives are out of control. But there
are such people. Especially in the state legislatures.
Initiatives are the last resort of desperate citizens, a way to check the
power of remote or arrogant lawmakers. When politicians refuse to heed the public, when special interests block reform, when the governor is
disdainful, when the courts offer no relief, voters in 24 states still have
some leverage: They can bypass the Legislature and change the statute-book themselves.
As the numbers make clear, this doesn't happen very often, but even a little citizen lawmaking seems to drive politicians crazy. It offends them that ordinary voters have the chutzpah to demand a say, once in a while, on an issue of public policy.
To stem this plague of democratic decision-making, they have taken to
sabotaging it with onerous rules: They hike the number of signatures needed to qualify a measure for the ballot. They ban payments to signature
collectors. They require petition circulators to be registered voters. They
only permit initiatives that deal with a ''single subject'' - a term then
construed to invalidate even narrowly drawn ballot questions. They demand that signatures be gathered from far-flung corners of the state - a high barrier in huge but sparsely populated Western states.
If they are completely without shame - if they are, say, the Massachusetts
General Court - they openly flout the law. In 1992, 75,000 Bay State
citizens signed a petition to put a term-limits amendment on the ballot.
Under the state constitution, the Legislature was required - not allowed,
required - to take a vote; if 25 percent of the members backed the measure, it would have moved to the ballot. But the Legislature, manipulated by then-Senate President William Bulger, refused to vote, and the amendment died. ....
.... ''Most Americans believe their elected officials look out first for themselves, then for their contributors, and put serving the public well down on their list of priorities,'' writes David Broder. ''To tell American voters today that a politician is better motivated, more civic minded, and a better custodian of the commonweal than the voters themselves might be an insult to their intelligence.''
Nicely balancing the voters' low opinion of legislators is their high opinion of the initiative process. In a new Rasmussen poll, 68 percent of
respondents nationwide support the right of citizens to bring proposed laws to the ballot; only 13 percent oppose it. By a similarly lopsided 65-20, they say a law adopted by the voters is more likely to be in the public
interest than a bill passed by the legislature. And they are under no illusion about the reason legislators keep finding new way to regulate ballot questions: It is to preserve their power (67 percent), not to protect
the public (16 percent).
Citizen initiatives are good for democracy and a jewel of self-government.
More often than not, they bear out Holmes's dictum that the best test of
truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the competition of
the market. A ballot measure that wins the electorate's approval is likely
to have been broadly publicized, vigorously debated, carefully analyzed, and widely discussed. If only the same could be said about all our laws.
Link to column:
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@....
This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 6/7/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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