Today, at early voting, I was privileged to vote on a number of issues which will directly affect my quality of life in my home state. This got me to thinking about the role of such ballot initiatives in other states and the possibility of having such a mechanism at the federal level.
For those of you that come from states where this is not a significant feature, let me explain. A ballot initiative (or referendum) is a process where ordinary citizens can collect signatures to propose a law, and then the law can be enacted by a majority vote at the following election. Some states also provide for this process to be initiated by the legislature or by various municipal organizations (my home state does both), while others introduce various quirks into the system by requiring approval at multiple ballots. While one version of this process or another exists in most state governments, to varying degrees (with the exception of Delaware, which apparently doesn't trust its people very much...), there is currently no provision for direct democracy at any level in the federal government.
In my home state, ballot measures serve an important function for a state in which party affiliation is often at odds with the prevailing ideology. Democratic and Republican legislators or city governments may be hesitant to propose laws which do not correspond to the national party platform, even if they are measures which they personally support. Ballot initiatives allow the people, often times with the help and encouragement of their legislators, to break the gridlock in the state Capitol and enact laws that pretty much everyone, or at least most people, agree on but can't obtain the right political conditions to enact.
Ballot initiatives, particularly when those initiatives correspond to important legislative goals, also seem to benefit democratic participation in general. When people know that their vote is going to really change the direction of the country in a direct and unambiguous way, they will tend to make more of an effort to participate in elections, increasing voter turnout and knowledge of the essential issue. Scotland experienced this, for example, when a proposal on independence when the people voted directly on the question of independence: a turnout of nearly 80% was recorded. In my own constituency, this last election is bringing people out to cast their ballots on issues ranging from the sale of alcohol to city limits. And in the meanwhile, those people are also voting in the national midterm elections which usually draw a very small crowd.
In a country where gridlock between the various houses of Congress and/or between Congress and the President seem to be the order of the day, and disenchantment with our highest level of governance is at an all-time high, I think it is important that we consider direct democracy as an alternative. Since our government is unable to reach consensus on a variety of issues, and the two political parties are dominated by pluralities that are radically opposed to one another, why not look into allowing the people to weigh in on legislative proposals?
There would be several ways of approaching such a measure, and all of them, unfortunately, require the arduous process of Constitutional amendment. However, we have passed amendments before and, I think, might be able to manage it again if things keep going the way that they are going.
Such a process should tend towards a balance between direct majoritarian democracy and the consensus of states implied by our federal system. Here is what I would propose:
- First, the bill would need to be proposed by a small group (I would suggest one-tenth of the overall number of states) of state legislatures, which would include the possibility of those states with ballot initiatives proposing such measures directly from the people. The proposal could then be challenged by interested parties on Constitutional grounds before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who would make a determination on the legality of the measure.
- Then, the measure would be put directly to the people in all of the fifty states and in all the territories of the United States. In order to pass, the bill would need to be approved both by a majority of the overall number of voters and by majorities in more than half the states.
- The bill would then be protected from Congressional amendment or repeal for either a minimum period of time (two years, for example) or until another ballot initiative authorized it.
The effect of such an amendment would be that a greater number of issues close to the heart of the American people would fall under their deliberation. More citizens would participate in elections, particularly midterm elections, because the issues that affect them would really be on the ballot, rather than just the public personas of individual politicians. Politically divisive issues such as immigration and entitlement reform which have little chance of action at the federal level could be decided on by the people, using their own judgment apart from party politics. Unpopular laws could be repealed without the fear of Presidential veto. In essence, such a measure would guarantee that the people, considered both as a single body and as a number of states, would actually exercise sovereignty over the national government, and it is precisely on this basis that the Constitution exercises any binding authority in the first place.
"We the People of the United States, in order to form a perfect union......"