Ballot initiatives: sloppy laws from special interests?

The ballot initiative appears to be a form of pure democracy. But that is misleading, say its critics, especially in today's complex society.

In the United States the referendum process -- submitting laws or constitutional amendments to the voters -- is universal. But less than half the states (23) and the District of Columbia provide voter initiatives -- in which proposed laws are placed on the ballot by gathering a specified number of signatures. And only six of those -- Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, the District of Columbia, and Ohio -- are in the East.

What do the detractors of the ballot initiative have against it? Among other things, they charge it has become a tool of special interests, has spawned an ''initiative industry'' of public relations and direct mail firms, produces poorly written laws that often are nullified after expensive court cases; and, they add, many citizens vote for or against initiatives on the basis of emotion, misinformation, or ignorance.

Sue Thomas of the National Center for Initiative Review in Englewood, Colo., says the initiative can be a useful ''pressure relief valve for people, but the need is to see that laws passed by initiative are sound.''

Prof. David Magleby of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, whose book on the initiative process in California will be published by the Johns Hopkins University Press this fall, describes ballot initiatives as ''all or nothing'' proposals which often are oversimplified and appeal to the emotions. They seldom are good substitutes for the legislative process, he adds.

Because of the nationwide publicity given some recent ballot initiatives -- particularly those cutting taxes -- there may be a general impression that use of the process is increasing. Both Dr. Magleby and Mrs. Thomas indicate that there probably has been an increase since the 1950s in attempts to place proposals on the ballot (in both local and state elections). Many are ''titled'' -- that is, they are given a heading by state officials and their wording is approved. But the number that actually qualify is not that great, and only a small percentage are approved. (See California chart on this page.)

Mrs. Thomas says her organization -- established in 1981 as a ''clearing house for information and scientific study'' of the initiative process -- does not yet have comprehensive figures on initiative states other than California. But so far this year, she notes, 14 initiatives were titled in Arizona but only 3 qualified for the ballot; for Colorado the figures are 12 and 4; Oregon, 27 and 4; and Washington State, 31 and 3.

Magleby says many propositions that pass are so poorly conceived and written that they are thrown out by the courts. Of ten California initiatives approved since 1964, six have been found unconstitutional, and a seventh -- Proposition 13, the precedent-setting tax limitation -- has lost much of its effectiveness through court interpretation.

Although there is support for a constitutional amendment to provide for national initiatives, Mrs. Thomas points out that such proposals have never survived the hearing stage in Congress. Both she and Magleby say the ills of state initiatives would only be magnified at the national level.

They enumerate several disturbing trends, including:

* Manipulation by politicians. Special elections for initiatives may be set for various reasons -- so officeholders or seekers can avoid having to take stands on the issues, to prevent races from being overshadowed by a controverial issue, or to ''activate'' a particular segment of the electorate. A politician can also make use of an initiative to separate himself from a large field, especially in a primary.

* Creation of a new political force -- the ''initiative industry.'' In California, says Magleby, this has evolved from organizations which hired people to collect signatures at 25 cents apiece to direct mail firms that send out letters asking for petition signatures and donations at the same time.

* Use of the media, especially television, at least as much to distort as to inform. TV and radio commercials, as well as direct mail materials, are more and more appealing to emotion and prejudice rather than reason.

Among reform suggestions Magleby says will appear in his forthcoming book:

1. To insure validity of the signature-gathering process, a study of how people react to petitions is needed. It's been found that most people will sign any petition if asked in a friendly way. They need to be alerted that they have a responsibilty to understand and support a proposal before they sign it.

2. Initiative proposals need to be simplified and put in language comprehensible by more voters.

3. The whole process needs to be simplified and standardized. States have widely varying processes. Propositions should state general policy, leaving legislatures the responsibility for designing specific legislation.

4. Initiative and referendum ballots need to be shortened.

5. ''A built-in legislative review process is needed,'' says Mrs. Thomas. She and Magleby note that, for all its faults, the legislative method involves hearings, public debate, and compromise in contrast to the extreme, ''all or nothing'' nature of initiatives.

Initiatives in California Year Petitions Number Number titled qualified adopted 1912*-10 45 30 8 1920-29 51 35 10 1930-39 66 35 9 1940-49 42 29 6 1950-59 17 10 2 1960-69 44 9 3 1970-79 181 22 7 *Year initiative processs became available Source: Dr. David Magleby, Brigham Young University

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