Burgeoning Ballot Issues

It's not just candidates that are already being positioned for the 2000 race. Ballot issues are also being prepped for the next vote.

This part of America's perpetual campaign crossed a threshold 20 years ago, with the spectacular success of California's tax-revolt measure, Proposition 13. The proponents of "direct democracy" has surged forward ever since, rarely looking back.

But some examination, some asking of questions, is in order. For instance, does lawmaking through ballot initiative undermine our representative democracy?

California reformers launched initiatives early this century as a way to get around state legislators beholden to wealthy business interests. Now, at century's end, 24 states have followed suit. The Golden State still sets the pace, with some 70 initiatives filed every two years (though far from all of them actually make it to the ballot). This November, Florida had the most issues on the ballot, 14.

All this could be hailed as evidence of America's democratic energies. But these energies are shaping mass sentiment through clever advertising - not shaping laws through thoughtful deliberation. Moreover, legislating by popular ballot often allows elected representatives to avoid issues they should address - taxation levels, affirmative action, legalizing marijuana.

And just who is putting all these questions on the ballot? It costs $1 million or more to qualify an issue for the ballot in California, with comparable costs in many other states. The cost of mounting an ad campaign to win passage can soar into tens of millions. Increasingly, only those with with an ax to grind, and substantial financial resources to grind it, can play this game. The reform intended to break the grip of money on legislating has become a new magnet for money.

Attempts to restrict ballot initiatives seldom succeed. Most voters like having this option. Voters, then, have a special duty to maintain a degree of healthy skepticism about what's being proffered to them via the ballot.

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