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Saturday, February 7, 2004

Democracy vs. republic

Here we go again. Every time a controversial ballot measure is passed, somebody comes out and opines that Oregon's initiative and referendum system gives too much power to the people. Yesterday it was a bright student from Portland, currently at Columbia University, who wrote in the Tribune.

Oregon's system, which dates back to 1902, is one of the nation's more liberal in terms of the power it reserves to the voting population at large. Governments at all levels hate it, and opponents of the initiative have succeeded in having some important restrictions placed on it. For example, a measure making a constitutional change must be limited to a single subject (or something to that effect). And now, canvassers are not supposed to be paid by the signature any more.

More fundamentally, opponents of the process often say that the average voter isn't as smart as the average legislator, and that we ought to leave the important choices to those who are better informed. Government should not be one big town hall meeting, they say, but instead a republic whose decisions are made by the wisest among us, who are chosen to lead.

With a part-time, high-turnover legislature made up entirely of average citizens, it's hard to buy that argument. Moreover, with the current information technology boom, the overall trend may be that the general public is getting smarter, not dumber.

This time around, frustrated proponents of Measure 30 complain that the income tax surcharge was carefully crafted in a bi-partisan compromise only after weeks and weeks of haggling, and that the hard-earned deal should have been left alone by the voters. Putting aside the fact that 3 out of 5 voters disagreed with the package, I believe there's a flaw in that argument.

When the legislature meets, the members are not ignorant of the referendum process. To the contrary, the potential for a ballot measure to second-guess any legislation sits in the Capitol like a 6,000-pound gorilla. The Republican types who voted for the income tax boost did so knowing that it would be placed on the ballot, in late January, when it would almost certainly fail. So they voted yes and went home, and the end result has turned out to be a rejection of the tax increase, which is now allowing them to smirk. (And with Lars Larson carping at them for their yes votes on this, they'll be quick to point out that they didn't really think it would survive at the polls.)

If the likelihood of the ballot measure's defeat hadn't been in the air last summer, this particular tax increase deal probably would not have been struck, and in fact, there may not have been any deal at all.

I'm all for debating whether the initiative/referendum system needs reform. Although I suspect that the majority of Oregon voters like it in its current form, it's worth a debate. But until the process is changed, no legislation is final. And members of the House and Senate will no doubt continue to bear that in mind as they ponder how long to stay in Salem every session trying futilely to solve the impossible problem of the Two Oregons.

Comments (6)

Query (I know how you love questions posed that way):
If a person who loses his or her job or his or her health benefits due to the cuts enacted by the loss Measure 30, does that person have standing to sue under Article IV, Section 4 of the US Constitution?

"The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government"

I guess Scalia would say that the text says that the State is guaranteed and not its citizens.

Hmm. I agreed with you about the measure, but I hate initiative and referendum.

It's not because I think legislators are smarter than average people. Believe me, I don't think that. It's for two other reasons. First, legislators do have more time to devote to this stuff than other people. They at least have to sit through a lot of hearings where they're at least going to hear an argument from both sides before something major happens. They're not going to decide from thirty-second TV ads. (Yes, they will decide for bad, non-policy-related reasons sometimes, but they will hear a debate, at least.)

Second, it has never looked to me like initiative processes are anywhere near as grass-roots-ish as they're purported to be. They seem to me to be driven by whoever has the most money to spend on advertising. (On this point, I will admit to having been influenced by the David Broder book.) It's not that I don't trust people to participate -- I totally do. It's that I don't trust the information that gets to them, and I don't trust that they have time to do a lot of in-depth research to get to the real story.

I have mixed feelings about it, but initiatives don't ultimately put people to all the consequences of their decisions -- in other words, initiatives do not have to result in a balanced budget. You can slash taxes, and you don't have to say where you'd get the money. In most legislative processes, you at least have to say where you'd take the money from.

Believe me, it's NOT because I think people aren't smart, nor is it because I have great and perfect faith in the legislative process. But all in all, I think the scale balances against ballot measures generally.

Thank you, Alli, you have made what would have been my points better even than I would have attempted. My comment is merely to add strength to yours via numbers.

They seem to me to be driven by whoever has the most money to spend on advertising.

Actually, I think that's more true of the election of representatives than of the initiative and referendum. At least on Measure 30, there was hardly any advertising at all -- none that I saw. There was one flyer dropped off on our front porch; that was it.

Moreover, with the current information technology boom, the overall trend may be that the general public is getting smarter, not dumber.

Nitpick: The general public is getting more information, perhaps, or at least more access to more conduits of information, but that's not smart and it's not dumb. It just is.

Like tobacco lawsuits: People went around staring Surgeon General's warnings in the eye for how long? How hard was it pounded into peoples' heads that smoking = cancer and assorted other nasties? How much good did it do? A warning I'm sure the tobacco industry embraced as a buffer against litigation did next to no good when it came time to people saying "well, yeah, I was warned but just couldn't see my way through to quitting."

I'm more receptive to arguments that the voting public isn't especially dumb when compared to the gladhanders, bored lawyers, and insurance salesmen who got bored with being president of the local Rotary than I am with some notion that anyone's gotten any smarter.

It's 2004 and nipples are disrupting the news cycle, after all. We should just acknowledge the widespread mutual stupidity of all people and then figure out a system that embodies a moments' wisdom.

Preferably one, to disclose my own leanings, that sucks a little juice out of the turnipseed elites that populate state legislatures.

You make a good point about election advertising.

I don't know; it's very complicated. I see your points, and yet I can't embrace the idea of initiatives. And as I said, it's not because of my great confidence in the legislative process, that's for stinkin' sure.

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