When Voters Are the Legislators

Article excerpt

On Election Day, voters bypassed legislatures and decided many controversial issues themselves through statewide referenda. But is direct democracy good for the country?

Through votes on some 200 ballot measures in 42 states, new state and local policies on many of this year's hottest political issues were weighed in the balance of direct democracy on election night.

About 70 percent of voters in Colorado and 60 percent of voters in Oregon voted to approve measures requiring background checks for all gun buyers at gun shows despite hefty opposition by the heavyweight National Rifle Association (NRA) in defense of the Second Amendment. Gun-control proponents outspent the NRA and made an emotional appeal to Colorado voters with the story of a gun that was used last year in the Columbine High School tragedy in Littleton, Colo., that left 13 dead. The teen-ager who acquired the weapon said she might not have bought it had she been subject to more rigorous scrutiny. Gun-control advocates proclaimed their victories to be a clear message to policymakers that the debate on gun control has changed dramatically.

Conservative groups, however, took the upper hand at the ballot box when it came to advancing their positions on proposals concerning gay and lesbian rights and same-sex marriages. A proposal to expand gay rights in Maine went down 51 to 49 percent. In both Nebraska and Nevada voters passed propositions ruling out same-sex marriages 70 to 30 percent. Oregon narrowly prohibited instruction in schools promoting a gay lifestyle (see "Social Measures Do Well on Ballot").

Measures proposing reforms to the war on drugs met with mixed results. A move to legalize the use of hemp and marijuana in Alaska was defeated by a ratio of about 3 to 2. But international financier George Soros and his partners, University of Phoenix founder John Sperling and auto-insurance magnate Peter Lewis, bankrolled campaigns for six "drug-war-reform" measures around the country, winning all but one. In California they successfully cultivated support for a sweeping measure mandating treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent first and second offenses for drug possession. Some 60 percent of voters favored the measure, which proponents claim will save taxpayers $150 million in incarceration costs each year and, perhaps, foreclose the need to build more prisons in the immediate future.

In Utah and Oregon restrictions on police acquisitions of proceeds from drug-related forfeitures passed, and in Colorado and Nevada proposals legalized "medical marijuana."

The public response to gambling issues also was mixed. South Carolina approved a state lottery for education funding with Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges -- who won office two years ago running on a pro-lottery platform -- leading the way. Arkansas voters, led by conservative GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee -- who has compared states that use lotteries to fill their coffers to "pimps" -- soundly rejected lotteries, casinos and even charity bingo. South Dakota voted by a narrow margin not to abolish its state-run video lottery game, and Massachusetts held on to its greyhound racing.

"There's been this perception for years that the initiative process was virtually controlled by conservative groups. Most of the issues that were on this ballot were conservative issues. But if you look at the 100-year history of the initiative process, liberals and conservatives have used it equally" says M. Dane Waters, president of the Washington-based Initiative and Referendum Institute. "Conservatives have probably had an edge in the last decade, but this election cycle it was the liberal groups who fared best. Funding for public education was the big winner, and liberals also did well on gun control. They did take hits on environmental measures, but overall they got what they wanted passed and did a good job of defeating what they didn't want passed."

Nowhere was that more clearly the case than on the ballot proposals to provide school vouchers to students in Michigan and California. …