Speaking Of Democracy…

I’ll begin this post with an admission. Back when I was Indianapolis’ Corporation Counsel–and that was way back,  1977-80–I thought citizen referenda were a bad idea. After all, America is a republic, meaning that ours is a representative form of democracy. (For those of you who are fond of pontificating that we’re a republic not a democracy, I hate to tell you this, but representative democracy is still a democracy.  We just elect people to make decisions and cast votes on our behalf.)

The theory is that the folks we elect will have time to fully investigate issues and form thoughtful and educated opinions, after which they will cast informed votes. Referenda, I thought then, would be won or lost based upon the “passions of the mob” that so worried the nation’s founders.

You have probably already seen the contemporary flaw in that reasoning.

Unfortunately, we  Americans no longer choose thoughtful, measured and educated people to make our laws. Those mob “passions” have translated into the nomination and election of far too many people we wouldn’t trust to choose our brand of toilet paper. Hence my change of opinion about referenda–a change of heart confirmed not just by the recent election in Kansas, but by the recognition that referenda are statewide, and unlike  legislative chambers, cannot be gerrymandered.

That inability to game the system is probably why Republicans are currently opposed to them.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions this year backing proposed ballot initiatives to expand voting access, ensure abortion rights and legalize recreational marijuana in Arizona, Arkansas and Michigan.

Yet voters might not get a say because Republican officials or judges have blocked the proposals from the November elections, citing flawed wording, procedural shortcomings or insufficient petition signatures.

At the same time, Republican lawmakers in Arkansas and Arizona have placed constitutional amendments on the ballot proposing to make it harder to approve citizen initiatives in the future.

The Republican pushback against the initiative process is part of a several-year trend that gained steam as Democratic-aligned groups have increasingly used petitions to force public votes on issues that Republican-led legislatures have opposed. In reliably Republican Missouri, for example, voters have approved initiatives to expand Medicaid, raise the minimum wage and legalize medical marijuana. An initiative seeking to allow recreational pot is facing a court challenge from an anti-drug activist aiming to knock it off the November ballot.

About half the states allow citizen initiatives. (Indiana is not one of them–we have to go hat in hand to the General Assembly and beg for permission to hold a local referendum. It took Indianapolis three sessions to get approval for our referendum on public transit.) The states that do allow these initiatives require a significant number of signatures by registered voters on a petition, and further require designated officials to certify the authenticity of those signatures and confirm that the ballot wording is clear.

Opponents of the process argue that campaigns by well-heeled “special interests” can influence the results. That argument would be more persuasive if it didn’t also describe the problem with today’s legislative processes, where the influence-peddling is rampant and far less transparent.

Republicans who fear the results of an actual, non-gerrymandered vote have resorted to truly petty arguments to keep these initiatives off the ballot.

In Michigan this past week, two Republican members of the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers blocked initiatives to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution and expand opportunities for voting. Each measure had significantly more than the required 425,000 signatures. But GOP board members said the voting measure had unclear wording and the abortion measure was flawed because of spacing problems that scrunched some words together…

In Arizona, the primarily Republican-appointed Supreme Court recently blocked a proposed constitutional amendment that would have extended early voting and limited lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. The measure also would have specifically prohibited the Legislature from overturning the results of presidential elections, which some Republicans had explored after then- President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020….

Arizona Republicans have spent the past decade enacting laws making it more difficult to get citizen initiatives on the ballot. State laws now require petition sheets to be precisely printed and ban the use of a copy machine to create new ones. Other laws require paid circulators to include their registration number on each petition sheet, get it notarized and check a box saying they were paid.

The assault on (small-d) democratic decision-making by Red state legislators could hardly be clearer. Fortunately, in Michigan, the state’s Supreme Court reversed the decision, and the issue will be on the November ballot.

When President Biden asserted that the upcoming midterm election is– above all– about saving democracy, he wasn’t exaggerating.


  1. Sheila writes, “We just elect people to make decisions and cast votes on our behalf.”

    That is still theory based on our constitution, but in reality, it has been proven false repeatedly by journalists, authors, and Princeton University.

    We are an oligarchy. Our politicians may be allowed to make small decisions on playground equipment for the parks, but significant economic decisions are handed down to our elected representatives—the same for regulations against industry.

    And I’m just speaking about local. National politics is a complete oligarchy. If anyone thinks Senators Braun and Young work for Hoosier’s best interests is naive at best.

    As for the courts, please let me know where the honest lawyers and judges reside. Indeed, not in Indiana. The local cesspool of lawyers and judges is criminal, but there are no consequences because who will hold them accountable?

    In Muncie, two lawyers finally lost their licenses due to drug usage and theft of clients’ money. The higher court published the written discipline on the internet. Our newspaper claimed both retired early and even let them speak about their retirement plans. Why the apparent lies by a Gannett newspaper?

    Both lawyers were also public defenders. How many cases did they botch on behalf of their clients while being paid by taxpayers? How many prisoners are in the county jail because their lawyer was incompetent?

    Now you see the motive why the newspaper lied.

    I asked the higher court in Indiana if they reviewed any files of the lawyers who lost their licenses…I got no response. As an independent journalist, I never get a response from Indianapolis.

    Once again, if you think our elected public officials work for us–you haven’t been paying attention. Likewise, you haven’t been paying attention if you believe our press works for us.

  2. “When President Biden asserted that the upcoming midterm election is– above all– about saving democracy, he wasn’t exaggerating.”

    I have seen claims that President Biden’s statements that “we are fighting for the soul of this nation” to be seeking religious rule due to his Catholic religious choice. Thinking people understand that statement but, sadly, it isn’t only thinking people who will vote in November. We are now distracted by the media concentration on the death of Queen Elizabeth, the ascension of Prince Charles to King Charles and a new Prime Minister replacing the Trump clone in the UK at a time when we need concentration on our own government leadership at local and state levels. It appears our major media sources are going the way of newspapers; will they be lost as they become the property of private ownership by the wealthiest in this country who can buy them and use them as their media playgrounds?

    Disallowing citizen referenda is putting a gag order on the nation, adding to voter suppression which is already a major problem in too many areas. It is interesting to see what Prince William, Princess Kate, Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan are doing but what are McConnell, Taylor-Green, Jordan, Rand, Clarence and Ginny, et al, up to while we are distracted?

  3. Red states can always just follow the lead of Florida. When a referendum is approved, the legislature writes a new law that makes it as difficult as possible to do whatever the referendum calls for. Examples are medical marijuana and reinstatement of the right to vote for felons who have served their time and who weren’t convicted of murder or a sexual offense. In the first case they set strict rules about who could have a card and then allowed local control over whether to allow shops in each county. In the second they decided that all felons must pay all court ordered fees or restitution. That wouldn’t have been bad if there had been some office accounting for fines levied, but no one knew who owed what. A follow-up here is that our Governor’s little election fraud squad has arrested 20 former felons for voting while ineligible. The state law mandates the state check on voter registrations and ascertain whether an applicant can legally vote in Florida, before sending a registration card. All twenty got their registration cards.

    If you’re going to start doing referenda, make the first one state how far the legislatures can go to subvert the will of the people.

  4. Evangelical Christianity has been “set up”, politically, to view Democrat freedom of speech as a an attack on Christian culture rather than an expected result of simple, natural diversity of beliefs. They have been taught that their God demands conformity and anyone not with them is against them. That’s the epitome of Puritanism and the reason for all of the suffering on both sides of the immigrant/indigenous wars.

  5. First of all — Queen Elizabeth’s death is international news and deserves coverage. I for one don’t feel distracted by it.
    Secondly — Peggy hit the nail on the head — the GOP is willing to lie, steal and cheat to get their way. Like playing chess, we have to think 2 or 3 moves ahead of what state legislatures are likely to do to thwart the will of the people.
    And, unfortunately, the same mob that put these crack pots into office are very reliable voters — not a mob known for thinking, but very reliable.

  6. My grandfather on my mother’s side of the family made a living and supported his daughters’ advancement in education though as a West Texas farmer, he did not advance beyond eighth grade. His nearest neighbor was a Mike away and they were in a first name basis. They were active in The Grange. When asked about politics, he was known more often to chuckle and say: “What goes round … comes round.” He lived long enough to witness that steadfast point of view.

  7. I have lived states with the initiative and those without.

    In some, like Michigan, where my first exposure to this came when my brother was hired to head up the drive to put the question of a presidential primary on the ballot, it is used with some restraint.

    In others, specifically California, it is a cottage industry, often with big money behind new proposals. People are paid to get signatures with “Shouldn’t the people be allowed to vote on this [terrible idea]?” as part of their pitch. Still, at least when I lived there, the Secretary of State (also why this is an important office) sent a rather large booklet on all of the ballot initiatives. It contained the wording of the initiative, a very cogent explanation of what it really meant, a statement for, a statement against, and two rebuttals. All in all, if anyone took the time, they knew what they were voting for, and they didn’t have to go look for it. I hope they haven’t moved it to the Internet. I will have to ask my niece on that.

    On the balance, we believe in checks and balances. This is one more check on rogue legislatures. With any luck, even in Florida they may one day get the voters to realize that there governor can do their bidding or act like a dictator, imposing his will. A good governor, elected state-wide, can veto bad legislation.

  8. Peggy is very much right about the Republican contempt for the people they do not,
    really want to “represent,” but manipulate.
    I’m sure that Pres. Biden meant nothing “religious” in his “soul of the nation” comment.
    As per yesterday’s blog, it continues to amazes me that the self-righteous Evangelical, and other
    Christian right-wingers, as a collective,have literally modeled themselves after the blatantly
    cruel, selfish, criminal clown of a former illegitimate president.

  9. Thank you Len. Like most everything else, especially in politics, evil people can (and do) use good means for bad ends. Like so many laws, there is no process ahead of time asking such questions as:

    – How can this be gamed/used by people/groups for their advantage, not for the common good?
    – What might be the unintended consequences?
    – What regulations/oversight need to be built in to ensure that this works as intended?

  10. Off subject, but I must write this morning how refreshing it is to watch thousands of people participate in a public event with dignity and good manners. Unfortunately this is not often seen here any more as beer guzzling mobs dressed in t shirts, bellies showing, and flip flops trash so much of public life.

  11. So far all I see is lots of flame throwing, name calling and divisive language. We need to be spending more time demanding our representatives solve our problems of the day:
    * Lower inflation
    * Efficient energy costs
    * Stop run away government spending and ridiculous giveaways.
    * Lower crime
    * Stop the invasion of our southern boarder
    * Provide an education system that teaches, not indoctrinates
    * Lower taxes
    * Less government interference in our lives

  12. Pat Patterson writes about the illogic of the right-wingers. They want everything but aren’t willing to pay for any of it.

    Fox News caters to this crowd of conservatives fresh with pom poms. They don’t want to address the causes of inflation, people migrating to our southern border, crime, energy costs, and ridiculous giveaways (of course, that is entirely framed by their opinion).

    While they clamor about government spending, they do not know about the Federal Reserve and how much they’ve been spending over the past decade to keep the 1% happy and wealthy.

  13. last vote around,SoDak, Knomes garden state, inititive for legal marijuana,fine had the vote,
    61% in favor, gov and atty gen said they wouldnt write the bill. done…seems ironic, atty gen was busted after leaving a party in his partys party, at night on the prairie, hit a guy on the highway and just left the scene as nothing happened. hes still atty gen,he admitted to drinking and leaving the scene, and the car , well said it all, the person he hit they found the dead guys glasses in the car.. the windshield was trashed.he said he hit a deer…. guy died laying in da ditch. rule of law ya know. stay outta SoDak, since the gov was elected shes bucking as a vice pres along side trump.

  14. Theresa:
    are you folowing me around? seems most of the conversations i have with blue collars, match that discription..join in,its laughable while you discuss, and sickening when you leave..

  15. I am running for town council in a northern Indiana town. I was a public servant for 40 years. I’m retired and could be traveling the country and eating bon- bons in front of The Housewives of Hamilton County but I’m giving my time to improve ElkhartCounty.
    Tell me again how local politicians are only serving the ‘people who aren’t paying attention?’

  16. Be clear: The USA and Indiana are already oligarchies. The job is not to preserve democracy, but to recover democracy. And that will require a – we hope peaceful – revolution.

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