Sounds simple. Voters can't always trust judges or elected leaders to do the right thing, so "the people" must act through ballot initiatives. This year, there are more than 80 of them (third highest number in US history). Is this a sign of progress? Or a broken system?
The latest wrinkle in this once little-used form of citizen democracy is a cynical use of ballot measures that has less to do with the issues themselves and more with the kind of gloves-off power politics waged by both major parties.
A few initiatives, such as some that would hike the minimum wage and block gay marriage, are openly used by political strategists to drive a particular set of voters to the polls for their candidates. Or they are bogusly used to "frame" a candidate in the public eye – either positively or negatively – even if that candidate can do very little on a ballot issue. The campaign tactic goes like this: "My opponent is against that proposed initiative on stem-cell research and I'm not, so vote for me."
While many ballot issues are quite valid as issues, in an ideal representative democracy, they should really be resolved by elected leaders. But with legislatures too often dominated by monied special interests and entrenched incumbents, initiatives will blossom and with them a drive to exploit them as political tools.
This exploitation comes out of a perception that Republican strategists helped President Bush win reelection in 2004 by driving Ohio conservatives to the polls to vote on an antigay-marriage initiative. And some research shows that voter turnout does slightly increase in those midterm state elections with initiatives.
Another corrupting use of initiatives is the fact that many may not even get traction without a few wealthy people, groups, or corporations putting up big money – often secretly – to pay for petition drives or for massive campaign advertising.
Thirteen states, for instance, have measures that would restrict government from taking private land for use by private interests (a valid reaction to a 2005 Supreme Court ruling on this type of eminent domain). But in several of those states, the initiatives were launched with money from a wealthy New York libertarian, Howard Rich.
These types of money-driven initiatives have gotten so out of hand that California, the state which ignited a boom in initiatives with its 1978 vote on the tax-cutting Prop. 13, has a measure this time that would limit the amount that companies and organizations can contribute to citizen ballot initiatives.
Voters might be better able to see through both the political manipulation and money-driven aspects of initiatives if there weren't so many of them or their wording so complex. Poor Arizona voters have to digest 19 measures this year.
It's enough to make one wish for real representative democracy.
And indeed, problems with initiatives can be only partially fixed by restraining them.
What's needed is a greater trust between voters and their representatives. That requires reforms such as nonpartisan drawing of electoral districts and more curbs on campaign finance. And legislators need to show greater bipartisan spirit and respect for minority interests. Then many citizens won't need to turn to initiatives as often.