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Jewish World Review June 8, 2001 / 18 Sivan, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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A jewel in the crown of self-government -- IN the two-year political cycle that culminated on Election Day 2000, some 350 initiative petitions were submitted to election officials in the 24 states that permit laws to be passed at the ballot box. Of those 350, only 76 made it onto the ballot. And of those 76, only 36 were adopted. Of all the initiatives proposed for the 2000 election, in other words, 90 percent ended in failure.

In the same 24 states, meanwhile, more than 10,000 laws were enacted by state legislators. Complete totals for the 2000 cycle aren't yet available, but according to the Council of State Governments, lawmakers in the 24 direct-democracy states passed 11,000 laws in the 1998 cycle, and a whopping 17,000 in the two years before that.

It's hard to imagine that anyone could look at those numbers -- 36 laws created by ballot initiative vs. 10,000 or more created by state legislatures -- and conclude that initiatives are out of control. But there are such people. Especially in the state legislatures.

Initiatives are the last resort of desperate citizens, a way to check the power of remote or arrogant lawmakers. When politicians refuse to heed the public, when special interests block reform, when the governor is disdainful, when the courts offer no relief, voters in 24 states still have some leverage: They can bypass the Legislature and change the statute-book themselves.

As the numbers above make clear, this doesn't happen very often, but even a little citizen lawmaking seems to drive a lot of politicians crazy. It offends them that ordinary voters have the chutzpah to demand a say, once in a while, on an issue of public policy.

To stem this plague of democratic decision-making, they have taken to sabotaging it with onerous rules: They hike the number of signatures needed to qualify a measure for the ballot. They ban payments to signature collectors. They require petition circulators to be registered voters. They only permit initiatives that deal with a "single subject" -- a term that is then construed to invalidate even narrowly-drawn ballot questions. They demand that signatures be gathered from far-flung corners of the state -- a high barrier in huge but sparsely populated Western states.

If they are completely without shame -- if they are, say, the Massachusetts General Court -- they openly flout the law. In 1992, 75,000 Bay State citizens signed a petition to put a term-limits amendment on the ballot. Under the state constitution, the Legislature was required -- not allowed, required -- to take a vote; if 25 percent of the members backed the measure, it would have moved to the ballot. But the Legislature, manipulated by then-Senate President William Bulger, refused to vote and the amendment died.

It is bad enough that lawmakers go to such lengths to undermine the initiative process. Even worse is when they do so to defend the indefensible.

The Oklahoma Legislature, to take the most egregious current example, has just approved an amendment doubling the number of signatures required for any ballot measure involving animals. The reason for this double standard? To block an initiative outlawing the grotesque bloodsport of cockfighting. Incredibly, it is still legal in Oklahoma to attach razors to the legs of roosters and then goad them into slashing each other while spectators bet on which one will bleed to death first. Even more incredibly, Oklahoma's elected representatives are willing to undermine Oklahoma's democratic system in order to protect this barbaric entertainment.

Travesties like these make it easy to understand the disesteem in which the average voter holds the average state legislator. "Most Americans believe their elected officials look out first for themselves, then for their contributors, and put serving the public well down on their list of priorities," writes David Broder, the dean of American political journalists. "To tell American voters today that a politician is better motivated, more civic minded, and a better custodian of the commonweal than the voters themselves might be an insult to their intelligence."

Nicely balancing the voters' low opinion of legislators is their high opinion of the initiative process. In a new Rasmussen poll, 68 percent of respondents nationwide support the right of citizens to bring proposed laws to the ballot; only 13 percent oppose it. By a similarly lopsided ratio -- 65-20 -- they say a law adopted by the voters is more likely to be in the public interest than a bill passed by the legislature. And they are under no illusion about the reason legislators keep finding new way to regulate ballot questions: It is to preserve their power (67 percent), not to protect the public (16 percent).

Citizen initiatives are good for democracy and a jewel of self-government. More often than not, they bear out Holmes's dictum that the best test of truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the competition of the market. A ballot measure that wins the electorate's approval is likely to have been broadly publicized, vigorously debated, carefully analyzed, and widely discussed. If only the same could be said about all our laws.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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