Give me liberty, but don’t let me vote on a ballot initiative

January 29, 2009

As the country returns to business as usual after the Inauguration, McCain supporters aren’t the only ones still reeling from the 2008 election.
Though Proposition 8 only directly affects the residents of California, it captivated the nation’s attention and remains a centerpiece of the same-sex marriage debate. According to the San Francisco Gate, combined donations from both sides of the traditional marriage debate total more than $73 million, making Proposition 8 the most expensive social initiative to date. The vast sums of money pouring in from out-of-state religious groups like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints generated heated controversy. Even more contentious was the fact that Proposition 8 nullified a pre-existing right by overturning the California Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage.
Proposition 8 may be the most famous ballot battle over gay marriage, but it is by no means the only one. According to the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, between 1998 and 2006 there were 30 state-wide initiatives to ban same-sex marriage. Only one failed—an Arizona initiative banning both same-sex marriage and same-sex civil unions. Ballotpedia reports that in 2008 Florida and Arizona joined California in proposing amendments to their state constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. Both passed.
At present, 27 states have some sort of initiative or referendum process through which citizens may put issues on the ballot. Many of these referenda are fairly innocuous, such as contests over school-district unification or pay increases for state legislators. Others are not. But unlike Proposition 8, they rarely generate the media attention necessary to create public outcry.
In my home state of Arizona, the populist legacy of Western expansion means that ballot propositions are an integral part of every election cycle. Every two years, eclectic interests hustle to make their voices heard. The Orwellian titles assigned to these pieces of legislation often use ambiguity and banality to conceal the true ramifications of their passage.
In 2008, the payday loan industry placed Proposition 200: “Payday Loan Reform Act” on the ballot in order to curb the Arizona legislature’s efforts to end predatory payday lending. Proposition 201: “Homeowners’ Bill of Rights” was sponsored by the sheet and metalworkers union with the goal of increasing the use of union labor. Other times competing interests use vagueness to confuse voters by sponsoring similarly worded but antithetical propositions. In 2006, Arizonans voted on Proposition 201: “Smoke-Free Arizona Act” and Proposition 206: “Arizona Non-Smoker Protection Act.”
The consequences of these initiatives linger long after voters have left the polls. In 1997, California businessman Ron Unz began his “English for the Children” campaign to end bilingual education in California. He went on to draft Proposition 227, which passed in 1998. The next year, Unz brought his fight to Arizona with Proposition 203, engaging in an expensive process typical in the world of ballot initiatives. According to Education Week, he spent $172,000 to get his measure on the ballot. Moreover, despite some $312,000 spent by Proposition 203’s opponents on ads and other public awareness campaigns, the proposition still passed by a wide margin of 63 percent to 37 percent.
Unz may have wanted to bring English to the children, but instead he has brought more red tape and fewer choices to the education system. The one loophole that made Proposition 203 more palatable, a provision allowing parents to voluntarily enroll their children in bilingual programs, has been all but overridden by subsequent interpretations of the Proposition.
Some schools have simply eliminated bilingual programs to avoid the headaches. Schools that still offer bilingual programs must process extensive paperwork and keep a file for each and every student. At my former high school, which has one of the strongest ESL programs in Arizona, many joke that the ESL Parent-Student Liaison is more like the “Paperwork Coordinator.”
Ultimately, the ballot initiative process, which aspires to keep power in the hands of the people, has instead forced them to become beholden to special interest groups. Organizations as far-reaching as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and millionaire Ron Unz levy their influence and bank accounts to push their agendas through. Rights like marriage and education, while certainly divisive policy issues under the best of circumstances, become political pawns.
Nasty battles like the fight over Proposition 8 demonstrate the danger of direct decision-making by the citizenry. There’s a reason the Founding Fathers preferred representative government. The ballot initiative process is just too much unfettered democracy.

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