Should Citizens Govern by Ballot?

Reformers want more citizen voting on key issues, but critics call process too complex

WITH the dust barely settled from the last election, partisans and reformers eyeing 1995 and beyond are taking a hard look at a fast-growing and controversial element of American politics: citizen-governing through ballot initiatives.

Some are pushing to expand it to more states and perhaps even the federal government.

``It is a hallmark of our civilization and a part of our constitutional heritage as free people,'' says Barbara Vincent, chairwoman of the ``Right of Referendum'' movement, a recently formed coalition pushing to allow initiative and referendum measures in those 26 states where they do not exist.

In Congress, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan has introduced proposals allowing citizen petitions to propose or repeal federal laws and also to propose amendments to the United States Constitution. Such measures, Representative Hoekstra says, would ``allow the people to help set the agenda.''

Others think such social issues as suicide or statewide gambling are too important or complicated to be left to the special interests (and their paid signature-gatherers) who increasingly dominate the scene. These critics are trying to rein in a process they say undercuts representative democracy and the responsibility of elected legislators.

Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling worries about growing efforts to change state constitutions through popular vote. ``It's basically a way to put an exclamation point and a 100 percent do-not-tamper-with guarantee on somebody's particular public policy enthusiasm,'' he says.

Oregon last month held 16 ballot initiatives (one-fifth the total of 73 around the country), 10 of which would have amended the state constitution.

Mr. Keisling is critical of the ``bounty method'' of gathering signatures, which is ``an extra inducement to the unscrupulous for fraud.'' Keisling's office is prosecuting more than a dozen individuals for forgery because of allegedly phony signatures.

This is a problem in some of the other 23 states where ballot measures are allowed, according to the head of one of the country's largest firms that helps get initiatives on ballots.

``You get a lot of fraud out on the streets,'' says Kelly Kimball, president of Kimball Petition Management Inc., a California company that helped put initiatives on ballots in six states this year and has been in business for 25 years.

``Companies like mine spend a lot of money on processing, on filtering out the bad guys,'' Mr. Kimball says. ``Unfortunately, when they're out of my system, they hop into somebody else's.''

Gathering signatures ``is good money,'' he says. ``If you're getting paid 35 or 40 cents a signature and you're willing to commit fraud you can make 50 or 60 dollars an hour or more.'' His company works to ``filter out the bad guys,'' he says.

An even bigger problem, Mr. Kimball says, is the simplistic and sometimes purposely confusing way in which ballot questions are presented by advocates. ``People are not as understanding as they should be of the issues they're voting for and the overall impact they're going to have on state government,'' he says. ``I used to be the one hopping up and down about `the peoples' process,' but I'm sort of changing my tune.''

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, thinks it's fine for all 50 states to allow ballot initiatives - but with some stricter control.

He suggests that citizen-generated initiatives should need a 60 percent ``super majority'' to pass, and that lawmaker-initiated referendums ought to win 55 percent to become law. ``This might ... strengthen representative government by putting forward [ballot measures] only when there's a broad consensus,'' Gans says.

Changing a system that has produced a steadily increasing number of ballot questions over the years is tricky. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that state prohibitions on paid signature collectors unconstitutionally limited free speech.

Oregon's Keisling is considering new regulations that would outlaw signature ``bounty hunting'' while putting more responsibility on initiative management companies to root out fraud. He also wants to increase the required number of signatures for a proposed constitutional amendment from 8 percent of the vote in the most recent gubernatorial election to 12 percent (while lowering the requirement for simple statutes from 6 percent to 5 percent).

Meanwhile, political figures as different as Pat Buchanan, Jack Kemp, and Ralph Nader are advocating the kind of federal-level ballot initiative that Congressman Hoekstra has put forth. While still requiring legislative action if approved at the polls, Hoekstra says, such measures would ``require members of Congress to listen to their constituents.''

And at the state level, ``Right of Referendum'' activists are pushing lawsuits in Tennessee, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania to add those states to the ones already allowing ballot initiatives.

``This is not a new idea,'' says Barbara Vincent, the group's leader. ``The process has existed in some form since the Greek states and Roman empire.''

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