Ballot initiatives: Province of the rich?
It was once the common man's answer to the high rollers and special interests of politics.Skip to next paragraph
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But today the initiative process - putting issues directly on the ballot - has a different character, say critics and backers. In fact, nowhere else in politics do so few spend so much, with so few restraints, in an attempt to directly influence public policy.
Already, the forces behind ballot initiatives are marshaling for battles in a number of states this fall over tax cuts, education reform, gun control, and healthcare.
But the average voter is increasingly on the sidelines in determining what battles will be fought, say a number of experts. More and more, those decisions are in the hands of high-tech millionaires, wealthy financiers, and national organizations.
These groups have the resources to launch campaigns that, by comparison, can make running for office look positively cheap and changing policies legislatively, agonizingly slow.
Are school vouchers a good idea? Voters in California and Michigan will decide this November, but not necessarily because it is the preeminent education issue in those states. Rather, because wealthy venture capitalist Timothy Draper and Amway co-founder Rich DeVos spent part of their fortunes to put that issue on those states' ballots.
Is it time to decriminalize the use of marijuana for medical use? Wealthy New York financier George Soros has helped put the issue before voters in a number of states. Voters in Colorado and Nevada will get to decide this year.
And where does animal protection rate with voters? Whatever its relative importance, it's been put before them with growing frequency - and success - thanks to efforts by the Humane Society of the United States.
There are no spending limits, and the process of qualifying for the ballot is virtually just a commercial transaction. It's no wonder experts like Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies call the initiative process "the biggest bang for the buck" in all of American politics.
In California, for instance, more money was spent in 1998 on a single initiative campaign concerning gambling on Indian reservations than the entire amount spent on lobbying the state legislature that session on its thousands of bills.
The trend of more money and wealthier players in initiative politics has its echo in the longstanding debate over the role of money in electing people to office.
But the influence of money in the initiative process has special intensity because the process itself is controversial.
Initiative critics like author and political analyst David Broder see money as just the newest flaw in a dangerous approach to making public policy. In "Democracy Derailed," Mr. Broder writes that the initiative process threatens to "subvert the American system of government," because it bypasses the normal checks and balances in the legislative process.
Mr. Stern is a believer in the initiative process, but he too admits that the onslaught of money pouring into the process is worrisome. "If you have money, you can get just about anything on the ballot. If you don't have a lot of money, it's near impossible, no matter what your level of support," he says. "The process is increasingly not a reflection of grass-roots sentiment."
Of course, putting something on the ballot doesn't ensure passage. In fact, in the 24 states that allow initiatives, only about 40 percent of measures put on the ballot usually pass.