Parental rights. Term limits. Campaign finance. In Tuesday's election, a record number - 90 - of citizen initiatives made it onto the ballot in states that allow them. Hundreds of other measures were proposed by state and local governments.
Increasingly, if voters don't get what they want through the traditional means of representative democracy, they'll find a way to put it on the ballot. In some cases, the initiatives passed on Tuesday will bring a needed change. They may also have the intended consequence of sending a message to Washington about what's important to voters.
But the initiatives come at a cost. Supporters and opponents of the various measures spent millions of dollars fighting for their causes, mostly battling it out with expensive television commercials. These so-called citizen initiatives were much like - too much like - professional political campaigns, with national lobbying groups leading the charge.
A Washington lobbying group for greater parental rights, for example, decided a victory by popular initiative would help the movement, and it set its sights on Colorado. The measure was defeated, but not without a hard-fought, expensive fight led by individuals who live outside the state.
Some of the most closely watched ballot initiatives included:
Affirmative action. By approving Proposition 209, the "California Civil Rights Initiative," the state became the first in the nation to forbid its agencies from using race and gender preferences in hiring, contracting, and college admissions. Proponents of 209 have valid arguments, but the blanket approach of their initiative brushes aside still-valid concerns about equal opportunity in America, rather than addressing them.
There has been considerable progress, but discrimination against women and minorities remains an issue. Proposition 209 could, as Colin Powell recently said, "put the brakes on expanding opportunity for people in need." It's likely, however, that the proposal will spend several years tied up in the courts.
Marijuana. Though federal law prohibits anyone from using, growing, or selling marijuana, California has approved a measure that will legalize the cultivation, possession, and use of the drug for health reasons. Arizonans voted to allow doctors to prescribe the drug for critically ill patients. National medical groups wouldn't endorse either initiative, saying there's no proof marijuana is effective as a medicine. More important, passage of the initiatives sends the wrong message in the fight against illegal drugs and could lead to abuse of current law.
Parental rights. Coloradans rejected a constitutional amendment giving parents the unfettered right to "direct and control the upbringing, education, values, and discipline of their children." Opponents argued the proposal would make it tougher to prosecute child abuse and would prompt legal fights over school curriculum. The initiative did have one positive effect: It helped foster debate about who's responsible for the welfare of children, and we hope that discussion continues.
Term limits. Term-limit proposals were defeated in Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, but Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, and South Dakota approved measures that will require future ballots to identify those members of Congress who didn't vote for limits on congressional terms.
Supporters of such initiatives want to force more members of Congress to back term limits. The issue may have a legitimate role in a campaign, but shaming a candidate into pledging support is not the answer. And as we've said before, term limits already exist. They're called elections.