Questions for the people

AS American voters complete making their choices for tomorrow's elections, many of them will be having to remember how they've decided on certain numbers as well as names. Most of the nation's voters will be facing at least one ballot question, and there are well over 200 initiatives and referendums on the ballots in 44 states.

The right to putting citizen initiatives up for a vote goes back to the progressive movement of the early years of this century, and it is traditionally associated more with the Western than the Eastern states -- Massachusetts being a notable east-of-the-Mississippi exception. Referendums -- questions referred to the people by the state legislatures -- are more often pro forma matters related to amendments to the state constitutions or to bond issues.

Certain types of issues seem to crop up repeatedly as ballot questions; this year's questions seem most notable for their diversity. Even on a given subject -- such as taxes -- there is wide diversity among the questions in each state.

Given California's role as a starter of trends, two proposals in that state -- a move to make English California's ``official language'' and a Lyndon LaRouche-sponsored effort to quarantine people with AIDS -- are drawing national attention.

But the AIDS measure is expected to drop like a stone with no ripples, and only Florida is likely to pick up the English-language idea.

Instead, the bellwethers are likely to be environmental questions, in California, Oregon, and Massachusetts, and various antinuclear initiatives suggesting that the peace movement is more robust than generally realized.

Ballot questions are often notable for their tortuous phrasing, leaving voters trying to remember to vote no if they mean yes, or vice versa. But in fact many states with strong traditions of initiatives and referendums do a good job of disseminating informative booklets setting forth arguments pro and con to help the voters decide. The problems come in states with only limited traditions often taking issues to the people. There the voter is often confronted in the booth with several baffling paragraphs of legalese, with no explanatory matter beforehand.

It's often said of polls that the only one that really counts is the one on election day. Ballot questions are in effect a public-opinion poll that really counts. They sometimes cover issues that some feel ``shouldn't be part of the political process.'' But they force the voters to think through their positions on certain issues, thus enhancing the public debate, and they give citizens an incentive to vote.

They are worth the extra effort.

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