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Elections 2004

U.S. Voters Make Laws as Well as Elect Their Leaders
American political system combines direct and representative forms of democracy

Do you want to limit legislators to only three elected terms? Do you want to change the pension plan of state employees? Limit your property taxes? Ban certain kinds of firearms? Do you want to vote your mayor out of office before he finishes his term? How about agreeing to increase the taxes on your house so that schools will be better funded?

In most of the 50 U.S. states, you don't have to be a legislator to do this. In a bold exercise in direct democracy, many Americans can vote directly on these and many other measures.

Since its infancy in ancient Greece, one of the perennial questions of democracy has been to what degree it should be direct, with most important questions put directly to a vote of the people, or representative, with decisions made by legislators elected at regular intervals. The federal system of the United States, in which a limited central government shares power with state and local governments, has allowed both types of democracy. This gives many Americans the stability of representative government with the vitality of direct participation by the voters in a wide range of issues.

Like so many aspects of American government, however, any description of this balance between representative and direct democracy will be complex and centers on the powers reserved by the state and local governments, rather than those of the federal government. Measures for direct democracy exist only in state constitutions and local law, and do not apply to the federal government.

The states themselves are a patchwork when it comes to the issue of direct democracy, with great differences among them. According to the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, 27 of the 50 states have granted themselves direct democracy at the statewide level. Even greater differences exist at the city and county levels, where local law may grant direct democracy powers that state law does not.

In most of these states, voters can insist on a referendum -- a popular vote -- on a measure passed by the state legislature, allowing them final say on whether legislative proposals become law. In many of these same states, citizens can also petition for legislative ideas of their own -- known as initiatives -- to be included on state ballots, permitting the people to act, in a sense, as their own legislature. In addition, many Americans can vote to recall officials before their terms have been completed. Finally, in most states and localities, residents can take it upon themselves to accept or reject proposed local taxes. They vote "yes" surprisingly often. In fact, the nation's school systems, which are locally controlled, and such services as police, fire departments and libraries could not function without the willingness of local voters to tax themselves.

For historic and cultural reasons, most of the states that allow initiatives and referendums are in the West. Rodger Randle, professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, and a former state senator, says that many of these western states were admitted to the Union in the late 19th or early 20th century, during what is called the Progressive Era, when the movement for direct democracy was at its height. The popularity of direct democracy was reflected in the constitutions of these new states. In addition, according to Randle, westerners were particularly sensitive to any hint that they were at the mercy of entrenched power, whether in Washington or on Wall Street, and wished to reserve important powers to themselves. Voters in the East were less likely to share these views and have been less inclined to pass provisions for initiatives and referendums.

Even if allowed by law, however, getting these measures on the ballot is difficult, and was meant to be. The strongest supporters of direct democracy do not want to see measures on the ballot that lack minimal popular support. In most jurisdictions, supporters must gather thousands or even tens of thousands of voters' signatures to get a spot on the ballot. The original supporters of direct democracy believed that this requirement would guarantee a substantive debate on the merits of an issue before it was placed on the ballot. Once on the ballot, both opponents and supporters of a measure will often organize vigorous and expensive campaigns to pass or reject the measure.

In the past several years, initiatives and referendums have often served as harbingers of important changes. The so-called tax rebellion of the 1970's, which greatly limited local taxes in many areas of the country, began with voter-directed initiatives in western states. Term limits for legislators also came about primarily through voter initiatives. Both trends provoked highly emotional debate and profound changes in the relationship between voters and their government. Currently, there are several ballot initiatives and referendums to amend state constitutions or pass state laws so as to prohibit marriage between individuals of the same gender. The initiatives have led to vigorous debates as well as highly emotional campaigns.

Some states have frequently seen more than a dozen such measures on the ballot at the same time. The pace of placing such measures on the ballot has increased in many states over the last several years, with voters taking a more active hand in making law, determining tax rates and amending the state constitutions.

These measures have, nevertheless, proven controversial even as they have become more popular. With so many measures competing for attention, says Tim Hodson, professor of political science at the California State University in Sacramento, "the debate that reformers thought necessary to the initiative process has not always taken place." Randle adds, "The difficulty we have with (direct democracy measures) is that ... it is hard for citizens to have adequate information." This often makes citizens vulnerable to emotional or misleading appeals. In addition, some states have had to contend with initiatives and referendums that are inconsistent or even contradictory. For example, voters have approved broad directives to improve the quality of education while at the same time voting to cut education funding. Occasionally, measures have been invalidated by the courts as unconstitutional. In a few cases, legislatures have needed to step in to straighten out the confusion, leading to final action being taken by the very bodies that the citizens were trying to avoid.

Still, the ability of voters to directly address important issues through initiatives and referendums has proven popular and has fulfilled many of the goals set by the supporters of direct democracy. They have often made government more responsive to popular political will and given citizens a sense of empowerment and responsibility.

Democracy is never tidy. It raises strong passions and can reflect all the contradictions of a large and varied populace. It is expensive and occasionally seamy. But it is also dynamic and vital and has shown that people can be trusted to govern themselves wisely. Balancing the stability of representative government with the dynamism and responsiveness of initiatives and referendums, has contributed to a healthy democracy.

Steve Holgate - Washington File Special Correspondent
Created: 09 Sep 2004 Updated: 09 Sep 2004

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Updated: August 2004