March 26, 2006

Voter Initiative: Special Interests and Voters' Competence

Marc Comtois

Another day, another letter to the ProJo on Voter Initiative, but this time arguing in favor. Joseph H. Weaver's argument echoes that given here and elsewhere, but he brought up two interesting points that warrant attention. Weaver believes that the two issues at the heart of the debate are "the role of special interests and the voters' competence to handle the situation." Concerning the competence issue, Weaver writes:

Overall, I think everyone, except our state legislators, believes Rhode Island voters can handle the responsibilities of voter initiative. It is interesting that on the issue of a casino, the legislature wants to place the issue before the voters, just as a voter initiative would place an issue before the voters. Either we are competent or we are not: Which is it, Legislators?
I'd also add that many legislators probably think the voters showed great judgement in sending them to public office! As for the special interest argument, Weaver makes the pithy point that:
And here we have to listen to our legislators with awed respect, because if anyone knows about selling out to the special interests, they do. Harrah's, CVS . . . the list is endless.

Will special interests have a role to play in a voter initiative? Perhaps. Can the voters do a worse job of controlling the special interests than have our legislators? Of course not. Actually, can anyone do a worse job than they do? I don't think so.

Finally, Weaver points out that Voter Initiative is really nothing more than a fallback to the historical precedent of the New England town meeting. As he correctly notes, the town meeting form of government became untenable "[w]hen populations and distances became too great" and the modern form of representative government developed. With technological advance, both the hurdles of counting the votes of a large population and overcoming the travelling distance to the seat of state government have been removed. Finally, I do find it a bit ironic that a conservative such as myself--who still favors the electoral college, for instance--would be all for putting more direct power into the hands of the people. The republican form of government is the very root of our political system, after all. But sometimes contemporary necessity dictates that we let go the ideal.