The Rise of Direct Democracy

Date: 23 Apr 1996 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The Rise of Direct Democracy

by David Morris

April 23, 1996

It’s time to take a hard look at the latest and most significant development in democratic action: citizen initiatives. In 1898, South Dakota became the first state to allow its citizens to engage in direct democracy. Today 24 states do so.

The rationale for citizen initiatives is unassailable. If legislatures become beholden to big money and special interests, then democracy demands that citizens have the right to bypass the legislature. If citizens gather sufficient numbers of signatures of registered voters, their proposal is placed on the ballot. If a majority votes for the proposition, it becomes law.

Citizen initiatives are multiplying, doubling from the ’70s to the ’80s and doubling again in the ’90s. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the number of initiatives on the ballot rose from 41 in 1984 to 73 in 1994.

Citizen initiatives often address issues politicians won’t touch. The passage of Proposition 13 in California in 1978 cut property taxes in half and ignited a tax revolt still burning across the country. In l994 the passage of California’s Proposition l87 galvanized a national debate about immigration. Last year, Oregon voters approved a right to die measure that allows terminally ill adults to obtain lethal drugs. Successful campaign finance reform initiatives in Missouri, Oregon and Montana limited political contributions to $100 a person.

Many observers fear that initiatives eliminate the give and take that encourages the legislative process to moderate the passions of the day. Yet people appear to take quite seriously their role as citizen legislators.

Only one third of initiatives pass. Many controversial ones are decisively defeated. Voters have rejected half a dozen initiatives that would have allowed public funds to be spent on religious schools. Maine and Oregon voters rejected anti-gay initiatives. The citizens of Ventura, California voted 2-1 against a local initiative to ban any public subsidies to developers. Last month Californians defeated three initiatives that would have severely restricted the ability of people to sue corporations.

Unfortunately, a Supreme Court ruling in 1988 is fundamentally changing the nature of initiatives. And that does not bode well for our political system. Before 1988 many states prohibited those supporting an initiative from paying signature gatherers. They wanted to preserve the initiative as a volunteer based, grassroots process.

In 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Colorado law prohibiting paid signatures violated free speech. The Supreme Court transformed citizen initiatives into big business. Says Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, “It used to be the most important thing was the issue. Now the most important thing is the money”. It used to be that initiatives reflected widespread grass roots sentiment. If they didn’t, they didn’t make the ballot. This is true no longer. Phil Keisling, Oregon’s Secretary of State dubs the new version of citizen initiatives, “cash and carry democracy”.

At least 60 percent of initiatives now depend on hired signature getters, says Rick Arnold President of National Voter Outreach, a Nevada company that hires people to gather signatures for groups. In 1994 more than 30 initiatives were proposed in Washington state. The only one that made it on the ballot was the one that paid for signatures. Of the 1.1 million signatures gathered in support of California’s upcoming initiative against affirmative action, only 147,000 were obtained by volunteers. Eight hundred thousand were secured by people who were paid $1 per signature.

In Florida in July 1994 a bidding war for signatures erupted among gambling interests, each pushing its own gaming initiative. Petition workers ended up being paid up to $5 per signature, 10 times the going rate.

As Joe Cerrell, a Los Angeles political consultant told Business Week, “people go out and propose these initiatives so they can make money. In 1996 it’s become a straight business.” Firms not only make money from gathering signatures but from the enormous advertising expenditures in big states. A handful of people can now get an initiative on the ballot.

When it comes to the actual election, big money doesn’t always win. But where it cares the most and invests the most, it usually triumphs. Two thirds of the initiatives proposed in l994 were decided in favor of the side with the highest spending.

In its original form, citizen initiative may have been the purest form of democracy. But the Supreme Court’s decision has weakened and perhaps crippled this important device. We shouldn’t allow big money to corrupt one of the most important vehicles for grassroots democracy ever devised.

David Morris
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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.

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