The Patient Voter

As the presidential election remains stuck in limbo, and speculation swirls about how this delay may deepen cynicism and breed discontent, the state of mind of the American electorate moves front and center. Are voters on the verge of revolt? Are they soured on their democratic system?

One place to look for answers might be in America's purest form of democratic involvement - voters' response to ballot initiatives and referendums around the country.

In the 24 states that use these tools of direct democracy, average citizens this year had opportunities, for instance, to overhaul the public schools with vouchers and teacher-pay reforms, impose statewide controls on suburban sprawl, and legalize doctor-assisted suicide.

None of those measures passed, suggesting voter reluctance to overreach with their ballot-box legislating.

On the other hand, they didn't hesitate to step into some areas where full-time lawmakers fear to tread. Voters in Oregon and Colorado approved background checks on buyers at gun-shows, something Congress has quaked at. In other states, they altered strategy in the drug war, making it harder for the police to seize a drug suspect's property and agreeing to the "medical" use of marijuana. Californians took a big step, mandating treatment instead of jail for small-time drug users.

These steps will be sharply debated. But the people were clearly telling their governments they feel it's time for new thinking.

Taxes went up or down according to voters' wishes. Residents of Massachusetts defied their state's "Taxachusetts" image by voting in a $1.2 billion cut. School bond issues generally did very well across the country.

What does all this say about the voters?

That even with piles of private and special-interest money now backing or opposing many of these measures, the millions of citizens who take the time and trouble to make up their minds on such issues retain a fair measure of independent judgment and common sense - as well as a healthy sense of their own interest in supporting, and preserving the democratic process.

That reserve of democratic savvy should help them exercise patience as a unique presidential race winds toward resolution.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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