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.
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.