Popularity of Citizen Initiatives Soars In Push to 'Take Back Government'

Tax measures, social issues dominate often controversial proposals

THIS November, Seattle parents Jim and Fawn Spady hope the people of Washington State will strike a blow to status quo public schools.

The couple have invested their savings in a drive to put an initiative creating charter schools on the statewide ballot. They recently succeeded in gathering the 182,000 signatures needed to bring their proposal for the independent public schools before the state Legislature. If lawmakers do not pass charter-school legislation, the proposal will appear on the ballot.

Across the country, frustrated Americans are using statewide citizen initiatives to transfer legislative power to the voters. This long-standing policy tool is experiencing a popularity explosion as Americans search for ways to take back their government.

''The number of citizen initiatives nationwide doubled from the '70s to the '80s, and we think it may double again in the '90s,'' says Robert Stern, director of the Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles. In 1984, 41 initiatives appeared on ballots nationwide. By 1994, the number had jumped to 73.

''What we're finding not just in Congress but in the states is that it's very difficult to pass something, and it's very easy to kill legislation,'' Mr. Stern says. ''So what people are doing is turning toward other forms of enacting legislation to overcome that problem.''

''It definitely reflects the citizens' dissatisfaction with government and feeling of helplessness,'' agrees Joan Ponessa, director of research at the Public Affairs Research Institute in Princeton, N.J.

Several high-profile initiatives have helped call public attention to citizen initiatives. For example, in 1994, California's Proposition 187 prohibited illegal aliens from receiving public services. It is now being challenged in the courts. Oregon voters passed a controversial right-to-die measure that would allow terminally ill adults to obtain prescriptions for lethal drugs.

Citizen initiatives are not exactly a newfangled idea, however. South Dakota became the first initiative state in 1898. Florida became the latest state to join the bandwagon in 1972. Today, 24 states give their citizens the right to circulate petitions in an effort to put an issue before the voters.

Some of the most controversial issues of the day have come to a vote through the initiative process. ''The most frequent issues are usually tax related,'' Ms. Ponessa says. ''But social issues also show up.''

The initiative process is most useful when special interests dominate an issue, Stern says, citing the California cigarette tax as an example. ''In 1987, the legislature couldn't get a motion to move the bill out of the first committee. But when it was put on the ballot the following year, it received 60 percent of the vote.''

''Two other areas where initiatives are really needed is campaign finance and term limits,'' he adds. ''The legislatures will not generally pass meaningful legislation on either one of those.''

The required number of signatures to put an initiative on the ballot varies from state to state. Many states rely on a percentage of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election to determine the signature threshold.

North Dakota has the lowest threshold, requiring signatures from 2 percent of the voting-age population. At the other extreme, Wyoming has the highest signature requirement: 15 percent of the total vote in the last election. Only one initiative has ever qualified for the ballot in Wyoming.

Although it is fairly simple to get initiatives on the ballot in most states, it is not so easy to enact them. Only about one-third of initiatives pass, Stern says. ''If you have enough money, you can qualify almost anything,'' he says. ''The way we've set it up around the country, all it takes is signatures.''

More and more frequently, groups promoting initiatives are paying companies to gather signatures rather than relying on volunteers to do the job. Opponents of this idea argue that it destroys the spirit of democracy behind citizen initiatives when an interest group simply shells out cash to make sure an issue appears on the ballot. But in 1988, the US Supreme Court ruled that banning paid circulators violates freedom of speech. Since then, the practice has come to dominate campaigns.

Few initiatives are passed today using the grass-roots approach of volunteers going door to door. At least 60 percent of initiative campaigns now depend on hired signature-getters, according to Rick Arnold, president of National Voter Outreach, a Nevada company that hires people to gather signatures for groups.

''It's a lot harder to get volunteers now than it was 20 years ago,'' Stern says. ''Women are now working and people are struggling to make ends meet.''

Many groups relying on volunteers have come up short and turned to professional signature-gatherers the next time around. For example, the Idaho State Property Owners Association failed to get its property-tax-limitation measure on the 1994 ballot. This year, the group hired National Voter Outreach to help acquire signatures and expects to easily meet the quota.

''But just because there was a lot of money spent on an issue doesn't necessarily mean that it will pass,'' Ponessa says. ''A survey we did on how much was spent on ballot issues in 1994 showed that money is surprisingly noninfluential.''

Two-thirds of the initiative questions in 1994 were decided in favor of the side with the highest spending, the survey found. But of the 10 questions attracting the highest overall spending, six were decided against the side spending the most money.

This election year promises a bumper crop of citizen initiatives. But proponents face the danger of a public backlash if the list of questions on state ballots grows too long, Stern warns. ''Things went out of control in California in 1990,'' he says, ''when 18 initiatives were on the ballot. People voted against 15 of them.''

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