October 6, 2005

Voter Initiative: Some Basic Theory

Carroll Andrew Morse

Charles Bakst comes firmly out against voter initiative in today’s Projo. He quotes Charles Fogarty, Elizabeth Roberts, and Sheldon Whitehouse as also opposed. (Is anyone surprised that Sheldon Whitehouse believes that lawmaking is solely the province of the elite?) All of the arguments expressed in the article are, in a very old sense, philosophically conservative, as are most arguments against voter initiative.

The basic argument against voter intiative is that we already had a set of institutions and procedures for making laws. They may not be perfect, but any attempt to create any new institutions and procedures might make things worse, so we should just stick with the system we already have. That is the original conservative argument, exactly the argument that was made against the whole idea of representative government; sure the king gets things wrong sometimes, but an elected parliament might get things even more wrong, so let’s stick with the system we already have.

Bakst offers this alternative to the supporters of voter initiative…

Former Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders, who chairs the coalition helping Carcieri and Cote, says, "We need voter initiative and referendum as a safeguard to allow the people to be heard when the normal processes of legislative and executive actions don't work."

I say: Make them work, by making your case better or by electing better officials.

Bakst’s challenge is not entirely unreasonable, but there is a problem -- a problem that no state legislature, nor the United States Congress has been able to solve.

Legislative leaders are quite adept at using procedural tricks to kill bills without forcing their party to express a position. A bill gets referred to a committee (chaired by a legislator who was chosen for his or her loyalty to the leadership) and then it vanishes. No vote on the bill is ever recorded. This is what happened to separation of powers in Rhode Island for several years running – it was sent to committee and never came back, so that it could be killed without anyone having to openly oppose it.

This leads to a reasonable question for the opponents of voter initiative: if you don’t believe the people can make good decisions on laws when the text is directly in front of them, how do you expect them to make good decisions about their legislators when the information is incomplete due to parliamentary chicanery? Or do you think it’s always sufficient to run government on the George W. Bush/Harriet Miers “trust me, I’m the leader” model?

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Good summary of the philosophy. I also think that the pragmatic point Bob Watson made on "A Lively Experiment" a couple weeks ago is important. On the micropolitical (local) level, no one thinks that their particular legislator is doing a bad job, only that "the rest of them" are. So, when the big issues come up, people trust their own Rep. and assume that all of the bad things going on in State Gov. are attributable to the other legislator elected by their particular (ignorant) districts.

Thus, the only way this attitude can be manifested to the macro- (or state) level is to bypass all of the legislators, fine individuals though they may be, on broader questions by taking these questions to the general public.

Posted by: Marc at October 7, 2005 1:05 PM