The Magazine

Popular Democracy?

The virtues and the vices of the initiative process.

Mar 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 24 • By JOHN J. PITNEY
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Democratic Delusions The Initiative Process in America by Richard J. Ellis University Press of Kansas, 240 pp., $17.95 paper TEVYE, the conflicted main character of "Fiddler on the Roof," pondered tough choices by arguing with himself, starting each new line of thought with the phrase, "On the other hand . . ." For conservatives, the initiative process is a Tevye issue. Two dozen states and many localities have some version of the initiative, which enables citizens to make law by popular vote. Conservatives have scored important political triumphs this way. Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot measure that cut property taxes in California, revealed the political potency of the tax issue and helped shape the Reagan presidential campaign two years later. More recent initiatives have rolled back racial preferences and stopped harmful programs that kept immigrant children from learning English. On the other hand, conservatives revere James Madison, who warned that direct or "pure" democracy "can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction." Acting through direct popular vote, unchecked majorities can roll over minorities. The careful, deliberative work of legislation simply cannot take place among a large mass of citizens, even when they are all wise and intelligent. "Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates," Madison wrote, "every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob." One may find ample justification for such misgivings in "Democratic Delusions," by Richard J. Ellis, a professor of politics at Willamette University. He starts with the example of Measure 58, a 1998 Oregon ballot initiative to let adoptees see their birth certificates. He admires the idealism of the initiative's author but questions whether the voters knew what they were doing.

"The initiative was a species of tyranny of the majority, with a large but unaffected public that adversely affected a tiny minority of birth mothers." Ellis ably sketches the evolution of the initiative process from its origins in the late 1800s. Though we tend to associate it with clean-fingernails reformism, he notes that its earliest proponents were hard leftists who thought it would transform American society. "Direct legislation began as the handmaiden of economic radicalism." Thanks to support from more moderate elements, who depicted it merely as a check on the legislatures, it spread to nineteen states by 1918. Very early, though, the process started to show most of the defects that critics attack today: confusing ballots, confused voters, misleading titles, and most of all, the influence of organized groups that manipulate it for selfish gain. Ellis does a fine job of explaining the unanticipated consequences of ballot access rules. To get a measure on any state ballot, proponents must gather a certain number of signatures. The original goal was sensible: to screen out initiatives lacking even a minimal level of public support. In practice, these requirements have given rise to initiative-qualification firms, who use paid workers to collect the signatures. Whereas volunteer gatherers care about their issue and are willing to explain it to potential signers, professionals only want ink on paper. Ellis quotes a handbook that tells paid gatherers not to "converse at length with signers or attempt to answer lengthy questions. . . . The goal of the table operation is to get petition signatures, not educate voters." In the initiative business, the practical approach trumps the deliberative one. Ellis provides Oregon data showing that initiatives with paid gatherers are much more likely to make the ballot than volunteer efforts. Unfortunately, Ellis takes some gratuitous swipes at conservative positions. Though faulting the Florida Supreme Court for blocking Ward Connerly's proposed measures against racial preferences, he adds: "Was Florida better off without Connerly's four sweeping initiatives? Almost certainly." Nevertheless, his focus is on process instead of ideology, and conservatives could accept much of what he says. On the other hand, while Ellis offers a wealth of shrewd insights into the shortcomings of the initiative, he has little to say about the alternative, namely the regular workings of the state legislatures. His few observations on the topic are debatable. Initiative activists may talk a populist game, he says, but legislators actually have to face the people. "When voters no longer like what a politician is doing, they can vote them out of office. Elections hold politicians accountable for their words and deeds." The reality is quite different in many places, especially California. The only way an average state legislator can appear on Los Angeles television is to get into a freeway car chase. With the media paying scant attention to state politics, voters know little about their lawmakers' words, deeds, or even identities.