More than 25 states have initiative and referendum processes, where voters circulating petitions can place policy questions directly on the ballot.
Most states adopted popular initiatives during the era of progressive reform in the early 1900s in reaction to the domination of party machines in large cities. Supporters said the initiative process would transfer power from the political leaders to the people.
Historically a strong party state, Pennsylvania does not allow grassroots initiatives – only the legislature can establish referendums for voter review, as happened last month when restrictions on governors’ emergency powers have been approved.
California is the most famous of the popular initiative states. Foreshadowing the Reagan presidency, Proposition 13 launched a national tax revolt in 1978 by imposing strict limits on property taxes. Social conservatives in 2008 promoted Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriages, a measure the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in Obergefell vs. Hodges (2015).
Recently, progressives have taken advantage of the initiative process, gaining voter approval for police oversight mechanisms, legalizing recreational marijuana, and raising the minimum wage.
These actions did not please the Republicans, who tried to limit the effects. For example, Missouri voters approved the Medicaid expansion last year, but the GOP-dominated state legislature refused to fund the implementation.
Now, GOP lawmakers are restricting the initiative and referendum process itself. According to New York Times, Republicans introduced 144 bills to curb initiatives in 32 states. So far, 19 have been signed into law by nine Republican governors.
The restrictions include making petition campaigns more difficult and costly, raising the threshold for passing the referendum to 65%, or a two-thirds majority, and limiting the amount of money that individuals and groups can. contribute to an initiative campaign.
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Usually, political scientists like me would support efforts to limit or even eliminate grassroots initiatives. Not that we are undemocratic, but because a wave of research has shown that direct democracy in practice is far from ideal.
While campaign supporters can be well-meaning, the initiative and referendum process tends to be dominated by powerful and well-heeled interests and individuals most of the time. Campaigns for and against referendums degenerate into garish wars and false advertising.
The rate of participation in referendums is generally lower than that of elective mandates. Often times, votes are scheduled for out-of-year elections or, in Pennsylvania’s case last month, primaries, when turnout is lowest and least representative of the population.
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Regarding the act of voting itself, the voting questions are phrased in legalistic, convoluted or biased language. Several questions, of varying complexity and importance, may appear on the printed ballot, which in California may be longer than Gatsby the magnificent.
More often than not, the results of the initiative process are divisions and questionable policies. The classic example is the Brexit vote in 2016 in the UK. California Proposition 13 cut taxes, but also cut funding for utilities and cut service quality to lower levels than the public preferred.
Of course, popular initiatives have their defenders.
Advocates of deliberative democracy note that electoral law and today’s mass media can provide the means for community conversations on voting matters before the vote. When forums are moderated by expert moderators, the quality of arguments improves and voter education is dramatically improved.
Citizen-led referendums foster political innovation, allowing state governments to serve as “laboratories of democracy”, testing new ideas which, if successful, can spread regionally and nationally.
The process of initiative and referendum can serve as a powerful control. In states where politics and government are dominated by a party or coalition of interests, citizen petition campaigns provide an outlet for the unrepresented.
For Pennsylvania and other divided-government states, grassroots initiatives can break the deadlock. This was the Republicans’ rationale for proposing constitutional limits on Governor Wolf’s use of emergency powers during the COVID pandemic.
And, there are certain ideas – non-partisan redistribution comes to mind – that politicians will never consider unless there is outside pressure.
Finally, anyone who has witnessed the shows of partisanship, ideology, and power from interest groups in Washington, DC and Harrisburg would be hard pressed to argue that elected officials are less susceptible to pernicious influences than voters.
These arguments have convinced some political observers and analysts to reconsider initiatives and referendums.
Republican efforts to restrict popular initiatives do not occur in isolation.
Rather, they are part of a larger campaign to strengthen minority power through voter suppression tactics, gerrymandering, overturning election results, and disrupting the peaceful transfer of power.
In the current toxic climate, the question should not be whether to restrict popular initiatives and referendums. Instead, how should such processes be adopted and perfected in Pennsylvania and elsewhere?
Opinion Contributor Fletcher McClellan is professor of political science at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Her work appears every two weeks on the Capital-Star comments page. Readers can email him at [email protected]you and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.