Direct Democracy in America
These processes are especially popular in the state of California. The roots of these procedures in the United States go all the way back to colonial times, and were adopted in the forms we know today during the progressive era. Many people believe that voters are not competent or informed well enough to make rational decisions, which is not a factual claim. While these processes are very popular today, most of the founding fathers were very wary of democracy, especially direct democracy.
The times are much different now, people are more informed, and democracy today is very different than it was when The Constitution was being written. Initiative, referendum, and recall are important institutions in American Democracy that allow the people to become involved in the legislative process, and although they conflict with a key belief of the founding fathers, the voters of today are informed enough to make competent decisions. Initiative is a process that enables voters to bypass legislators by putting proposed statutes on the ballot directly or indirectly.
In Direct initiative, proposals that qualify go directly onto the ballot. In Indirect initiative, proposals that qualify are sent to the legislature, and if they are voted down will then go to the ballot. Referendum is a term that refers to a measure on the ballot. There are two types of referenda: legislative and popular. Legislative referenda deal with things like changes to the state constitution and tax changes, which some states require approval of by voters. Popular referenda allow citizens to approve or repeal a law passed by the legislature.
The recall process allows voters to remove and replace a public official before their term is complete, and can be seen as impeachment by the people. For any of these procedures to end up on the ballot there are several criteria that need to be met, which vary from state to state. Generally the process involves filing a petition with the state, review of the petition for conformity with the state’s requirements, preparation of the title and summary, circulation of a petition to obtain a set number of signatures, and verification of the signatures.
If these requirements are met then the measure will appear on the ballot to be approved or rejected by the voters. Initiative, referendum and recall have a long history in the United States. The roots of these procedures can be traced back to colonial times. Citizens of colonial New England proposed, discussed, and voted on local ordinances at open town hall meetings. Thomas Jefferson was more receptive of democracy than his contemporaries, and advocated several direct democracy devices. This process can be seen as the predecessor to the current referendum process.
In 1778, Massachusetts became the first state to hold a legislative referendum for the approval of its constitution. This procedure quickly caught on among other states, and by the end of the 19th century almost all states had decided to have their constitutions approved by referendums. In the 1800s Congress made referendum mandatory for constitutional changes by states entering the union after 1857. The progressive era of the late 1800s and early 1900s brought about the processes of direct democracy as they are used today.
People began to realize that they had no means to control legislators that were out of touch with the needs of the people and governing in their own interests. This dissatisfaction is what inspired the progressive movement. This trend spread thanks to several key figures in American politics at the time. Various populist parties such as The Grangers, Farmers’ Alliance, and the People’s (Populist) party were three popular groups advocating direct democracy procedures. Proponents of direct democracy often cited the success it had in Switzerland, which was one of the biggest economies at the time.
By the end of the century, direct democracy devices were not just ideas supported by radical populists, but ideas supported by a large part of the American public. This is attributed to the expensive public opinion campaigns run by John Haynes in California and Herbert Bigelow in Ohio. In 1898 South Dakota became the first state to adopt a statewide initiative and popular referendum process with a campaign led by Fr. Robert Haire. Today 24 states have adopted initiative processes, 26 have referendum, and 19 have recall. We have a government that is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Common citizens use direct democracy processes to remind politicians that this means all people, not just wealthy donors and special interests. Since their adoption the broad goal of these processes has been to be a check on elected officials, whether that is accomplished by bypassing the legislature, applying governmental reforms, or removing unpopular officials from office. In the past several decades, initiatives have been one of the most important means for changing public policy. Initiatives are often used to pass legislation that legislatures would not normally pass themselves.
Some initiatives deal with civil rights and liberties such as giving women the right to vote, the eight hour workday, and the abolition of poll taxes. Initiatives are often used to enact popular reforms. Voters have used initiatives to require direct primaries for nomination and campaign finance reform. In the 1990s Colorado started the term-limit movement by approving an initiative that enacted term limits for state office holders. Many states soon followed suit and passed similar initiatives. By passing governmental reforms voters can remind politicians that they are ultimately accountable to them, not the moneyed interests or themselves.
Initiatives are also used to enact policies that deal with moral issues that politicians may not want to take a side on like physician assisted suicide, prohibition, the death penalty, medical marijuana, and state funded abortions. In 1998, voters in Washington passed an initiative that legalized medical marijuana by a margin of 59-41. This was a law the people of the state overwhelmingly approved of, but something that a politician would never vote for. The voters in Washington stood up for themselves and voiced their opinion at a time when their state government wasn’t listening.
A study by David Megleby of Brigham Young University breaks down into numbers what voters use initiatives to accomplish since the 1970s. He says that three-fifths of initiatives concern government spending, public morality or political reform; One quarter seek to regulate business or labor or deal with the environment; Finally, initiatives that deal with civil rights, liberties, health, welfare, and education are rare. In the most recent years initiatives have mostly been concerned with governmental reform. Referenda can be used in several ways.
The most common way is to approve amendments to a state’s constitution. Currently, 49 states require a popular vote to approve amendments to their constitutions, the exception being Alabama. Referenda are also used to repeal unpopular legislation. A recent example of this is Ohio’s Issue 2, which was on the ballot this year. This referendum asked voters whether or not to uphold the controversial anti-union law Senate Bill 5. The referendum failed to pass, instantly killing passage of the bill. Ohio voters exercised their rights and repealed a law that would have affected over 650,000 Ohioans.
Some states also require referenda for bond measures and tax changes. This gives the public a say in how much money they have to give their state, which also means politicians have someone to share the blame with if people become unhappy with the tax rates. Recall elections are used to remove unpopular officials from office before their term is completed. This can motivate elected officials to stick to promises made on the campaign trail, and not to violate voter trust. The first successful recall was on California state senator Marshall Black in 1913.
A somewhat recent example of this is the recall of California governor Gray Davis in 2003, one of only two successful efforts to recall a governor. Gov. Davis was not very popular in his first term, and won his second term by a narrow margin. The voters gave Gov. Davis a second chance, and he blew it. He was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Currently voters in Wisconsin are mobilizing an effort to recall Governor Scott Walker. Earlier this year Walker championed a bill to curb the collective bargaining rights of state employees that received much criticism both in Wisconsin and the entire nation.
The voters are now ready to exercise their right to remove him from office and will begin collecting signatures on Tuesday, November 15. Direct democracy processes do not solely need to be used to make policy, but can also be used to give legislators a “wake up call” that their constituents are not happy. A recent example of this is Governor John Kasich’s response to the recent failure of Issue 2 in Ohio, which was a referendum to uphold the passage of the controversial collective bargaining law Senate Bill 5. After the referendum’s failure Governor John Kasich responded by saying “The people have spoken clearly.
You don’t ignore the public. Look, I also have an obligation to lead. I’ve been leading since the day I took this office, and I’ll continue to do that. But part of leading is listening and hearing what people have to say to you. ” Gov. Kasich knows that his constituents are not happy and that he must try to regain their trust. California is the birthplace of the modern movement to make use of the initiative process, and continues to be the birthplace of national movements through the use of this process. In 1978, California voters approved Proposition 13, which cut property taxes dramatically.
Within two years, 43 states enacted some form of property tax limit. In addition to being the catalyst to the modern initiative movement, Californians have proven that initiatives are a very effective way of making policy. The initiative process plays a larger role in California policymaking than it does in any other state. 40 percent of California’s budget is driven by one initiative, Proposition 98, which set minimum funding for education, and for the most part has been followed. Californians have used the initiative process to pave the way for popular movements around the country.
One example of this is Proposition 215. In 1995 voters in California passed proposition 215, making California the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Since then 15 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. The State of California has embraced procedures of direct democracy more than any other state, and can be seen as an example of how direct democracy is supposed to be utilized. Opponents of direct democracy devices often claim that voters are not adequately informed to make competent decisions on complex policy issues.
They cite the little attention most citizens pay to these issues, the questionable reliability of the sources voters use to inform themselves, and the likelihood of voters to think only about short term interests. A study done in 1980 asked voters themselves how informed they felt they were when making their decisions about ballot issues. Although only 57 percent felt they were adequately informed in September, by the time November came 78 percent of likely voters felt they were informed adequately enough to make a decision. This shows that voters are taking the effort to educate themselves on the issues.
Today we live in a society where information is more readily available than ever, so it is not hard for voters to educate themselves on these issues. Also, if someone is concerned enough with the policy direction of their state to make the effort to vote, they are most likely concerned enough to make an effort to educate themselves on the issues just like they do with the candidates. Arthur Lupia makes an argument that although many individual voters are not informed, enough are to make the group as a whole competent enough to make an informed decision.
He says that although all voters are not adequately informed, with a sample size as large as an entire state, the probability that a particular voter is well informed only has to be slightly more than half to have a very high group competency level. Since the more educated you are the more likely you are to vote, it is a reasonable assumption that this probability is over half. Also, voters who pay little attention to public affairs are more likely to only vote for candidates and skip the ballot issues. This is more evidence that the probability of a particular voter being adequately informed is over half.
A study done by James A. Maeder after the 1980 general election showed that voters are not short minded in voting on initiatives. In an election cycle in which Ronald Reagan won the state and their incumbent democratic senator was defeated, the voters rejected a tax cut despite the conservative trend at the time because they understood it would be bad for the fiscal health of their state in the long term. Contrary to the beliefs of many critics, the electorate is capable of thinking with their long term interests in mind.
The founding fathers of the United States mostly preferred representative government to direct democracy because they did not trust the common citizen to govern in the common interest, but instead would govern in their short term narrow interests. In 1787, Alexander Hamilton said “The People are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. ” The founding fathers were so wary of democracy that in the Constitution in its original form only provided for one half of one branch of the federal government to be directly elected by the people. This is because democracy was different in the early days of the country.
In those times candidates would often throw large parties in the town square and get the townspeople all liquored up to the point of near riot in order to vote for them. Voters today, however, are much more informed and sophisticated than they were in the 18th century. They also have information on public affairs that is more readily available than it was in the 18th century. Although direct democracy devices contrast with the beliefs of the founding fathers, we live in very different times; times where voters are more educated and less superficial in their decision making.
Initiative, referendum, and recall are important institutions in American Democracy that allow the people to become involved in the legislative process, and although they conflict with a key belief of the founding fathers, the voters of today are informed enough to make competent decisions. Initiative, referendum and recall are an integral part of American democracy, and have been since before the country’s formation. These processes were introduced into the modern political system during the progressive era, and are still popular today.