Tag Archives: referenda

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.



It Can Be Done

Americans can be forgiven for feeling dispirited–okay, monumentally depressed–when reading headlines and listening to news. The Senate is unlikely to do anything meaningful about the daily gun massacres; Republican misuse of the filibuster has kept that august body from doing anything  meaningful; we hear daily about court decisions that confirm the success of the decades-long effort to pack the federal courts with rightwing ideologues…

I could go on and on, and so can most of you reading this.

There are, however, “nuggets” of news suggesting the possibility of emerging from this  period of extended stalemate.

One of those stories is emerging from Idaho, of all places. As the linked article begins,

Idaho is one of the most conservative, rural, and Republican-dominated states in the nation. It’s also on track to enact the sort of progressive economic policies that continue to elude Democrats in Washington, DC.

Earlier this month, grassroots organizers submitted what should be far more than enough petition signatures necessary to qualify a proposal called the Quality Education Act for the November ballot. The initiative, if passed, would raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy in order to fund the state’s beleaguered public K-12 school system.

A wealth tax. To support public education. In Idaho, a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 4:1 margin and Donald Trump crushed Joe Biden by 30 points. How is this happening?

The organization behind this seemingly impossible scenario is called Reclaim Idaho. Its webpage eschews the usual appeals to ideology and political identity/tribalism in favor of a simple statement focusing on the policy issue at hand, and offering “a solution to a broadly acknowledged problem.”

The current campaign follows the organization’s first success, achieved In 2018.  That year, organizers and committed volunteers drove around the state in a 1977 RV painted bright green, and talked–door to door–in favor of a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid.  The initiative passed with more than 60% of the vote.

With its success, Reclaim Idaho pried open access to government-sponsored health care to more than 60,000 economically challenged Idahoans and rattled the state’s political establishment. As a feel-good documentary chronicling the unlikely underdog story swept up awards at film festivals, the Republican supermajority in the Idaho legislature sought to kill future initiatives by making ballot qualification far more onerous.

Reclaim Idaho sued the state over Senate Bill 1100, which was ultimately struck down in a state Supreme Court decision that affirmed direct democracy as a “fundamental right.” The year-long legal battle cast the organization as a nonpartisan champion of democracy, which Mayville says helped generate the sort of coverage that won them a wave of new supporters and volunteers.

Reclaim Idaho builds on the belief that ballot initiatives are an important aspect of democracy, and a pathway to better policies and politics. In Idaho, support for  tightly targeted initiatives are also building a long-term political infrastructure –one that doesn’t rely on  corporate donors.

“We have a long-term goal of making the Idaho government more responsive to the needs of everyone and not just those with the most wealth and political influence,” Mayville explains. “To do that, we believe it’s necessary to build a constituency of voters who are going to put bread and butter issues like education funding and health care first. Initiatives get people in the habit of voting directly on these issues.”

As I have previously noted, Indiana lacks anything that could reasonably be considered home rule, and the state doesn’t have an initiative mechanism either–although some local government units do. As Ballotpedia reports,

No initiative and referendum process of any kind is available in Indiana local governments for local ballot measures.

This article sets out the laws governing local ballot measures in Indiana. It explains:

Which local units of government make the initiative process available to residents.
How and whether local units of government, including school districts, can refer local ballot measures (such as school bond propositions) to the ballot.

As a result, in Indiana and similar states, citizens cannot exercise “habits of voting directly on these issues,” and the legislature can–and routinely does–ignore public opinion.

There are certainly downsides to initiatives and referenda. (See California…where numerous ballot measures clog election ballots and offer multiple ways for well-funded campaigns to mislead voters and stir up mischief.)

I used to believe that we should leave the determination of policy to the presumably sincere and thoughtful people we elect to legislative bodies. In Indiana these days, anyone characterizing the super-majority in our legislature as “sincere and thoughtful” probably needs a mental health evaluation.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from Idaho, and an important one is to focus political campaigns on specific issues salient to the voters of the relevant political subdivision–a tactic that’s also likely to help get out the vote.





About Those Referenda….

Lots of encouraging things happened Tuesday.

Elections are always dicey propositions. People’s votes are affected by so many imponderables—I’d love to think, as someone who teaches public policy, that voters make their decisions after considering contending positions and evaluating them, but we all know better. Especially when measures affecting the lives of GLBT people are at issue, fear and homophobia and religious fanaticism have historically made a noxious—and effective—brew.

But not this year.

On Tuesday, same-sex marriage referenda were on the ballots in four states. In Washington, Maine and Maryland, voters endorsed marriage equality. In Minnesota, for the first time ever, they defeated an anti-marriage amendment.

Voters also reelected the first President who ever publicly supported the freedom to marry, along with a number of gay and gay-friendly legislators. In Wisconsin, they elected the first “out” United States Senator in American history. In a victory that particularly pleased me, Iowa voters rejected an effort to retire another of the Supreme Court justices who voted with the majority in that state’s freedom to marry case.

Now, let me be clear about one thing: fundamental rights should never be put to a vote of the electorate in the first place.  No one got to vote on whether the government should recognize my marriage, and it is constitutionally improper to give me the power to vote on anyone else’s. But since, as usual, no one listens to me and my “ilk,” those decisions were put to a vote. They had to be dealt with.

Before November 6th, I think it is fair to say that most GLBT activists would have been happy to see a win of just one of these four ballot measures. The advance of marriage rights has thus far depended primarily upon the courts and occasionally legislatures—before now, every time the issue has been put to a popular vote, the gay community has lost. Winning one of these measures would have been hailed as real progress, a break in the drumbeat of constant popular defeat. Two would have been real cause for celebration. I think it is accurate to say that no one expected to win all four.

So there was a lot to cheer about in this year’s election. Bigotry lost across the board, not just anti-gay bigotry. Despite a distressing amount of racism directed toward the President, he won handily. Latinos flexed their electoral muscles. Women refused to be sent barefoot and pregnant back to the kitchen.

As elated as many of us are, however, it is well to remember that elections are just signals of change, not change agents. A lot of people who thought that Obama’s 2008 election would usher in a new era were disappointed because they failed to understand the way the system (not to mention reality) works. We don’t elect monarchs in the United States. Checks and balances mean that no matter what the intentions of the people we put in office, in order to implement the policies they champion, they must work through systems that were intended to force negotiation and compromise—systems that aren’t working very well right now. Voting was just the beginning. Changing the world takes time—and more effort than most of us realize.

But right now, we’re entitled to take some time to savor the results of this election. We’re entitled to entertain the possibility—indeed, the probability—that America has turned an important corner, and that genuine equality for gays and lesbians is closer than it has ever been.

Right now, it’s time for high fives.