Are ballot initiatives the enema of the people?

LAST WEEK AT Town Hall, a goodly number of civic-minded types forsook the Seattle Mariners opener, a Sonics game, and Bruce Springsteen at the Tacoma Dome to listen to a panel discuss the topic, “Do initiatives derail or serve democracy?”

Snoresville, right?

It would be, except that the issue is incredibly hot here, where state laws are being dramatically rewritten by the initiative process: affirmative action nixed, “three strikes” for felons, state spending capped. Not to mention the infamous I-695, now in legal and legislative limbo, which, if found constitutional, will require all governments—city, county, and state—to raise taxes and fees only by plebiscite. It has also made Tim Eyman, a watch salesman from Mukilteo, the de facto governor of the state.

The panel essentially set up a debate between Eyman and David Broder, the Pulitzer Prize -winning political columnist from The Washington Post, who was in town flacking his new book, Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money.

Broder’s book, which grew out of reporting on initiatives he did during the 1998 campaign cycle, takes a very skeptical view of the initiative process as it is practiced today in 24 states and various cities around the US. What began as an innovation of the Populist and Progressive reform movements in the late 19th century has now become a tool, Broder says, of special interests, wealthy individuals, political hatchet men, and angry activists who have no notion of the dangers to democracy some of their ideas—and their often crudely written laws—pose.

The founding fathers, Broder says, were very aware that direct democracy could lead to a tyranny of the majority—an approach to ideas and governance that has all the sophistication of thumbs up or thumbs down at the Roman Coliseum. Such direct democracy might work in small villages or in places with a homogenous population, but in a widely diverse state or country, it is problematic. A good example might be I-695, which explicitly rewards the majority (car owners) at the expense of the minority (bus riders).

That’s why the founding fathers created the checks and balances system of representative government: to allow for negotiation between differing constituencies. The legislative process is also a public process, whereas initiative drives are private, not subject to the same kinds of scrutiny. Yes, Broder argues, elective government may be flawed, at times even corrupt, but it is reformable; mob rule is not. Broder’s motto might be: Give me James Madison or give me death!

BUT FEW PEOPLE agree with him. In his book, Broder cites a poll taken in Washington state in 1999 that found that 84 percent of voters favored initiatives, while only 8 percent wanted to eliminate them. Even in California, which has been arguably ravaged by the Proposition 13 tax-revolt initiative, nearly three quarters of the voters still felt such ballot measures were a good thing. Despite the damage they do, or the insanity with which some are conceived, or the hidden agendas many represent, people who have access to the initiative and referendum process don’t want to give it up.

Many of them, liberal or conservative, are angry. And Tim Eyman, whatever you may think of his initiatives (he’s got two more headed for this November’s ballot), is passionate on the subject. His view lacks the sophistication of Broder’s, but it is in the tradition of mad-as-hell Populists and Progressives. Eyman says that the initiative process is “a laxative to a constipated political process.” (Eyman, by the way, who has a beer-hall style of speechifying, seems also to have a fondness for anal and proctologic metaphors, which did not go over well with the Town Hall gray hairs.)

He makes a passionate case for initiatives. They are, he says, a way to get elected officials to deal with issues that they otherwise lack the courage to address or the will to undertake. Term limits is one example, spending lids another. Our own public disclosure commission, which daylights campaign contributions, was established by ballot measure. Initiatives are a way to police the pols.

And to let them know the will of the people. Look at I-695, which at the moment has been overturned by a judge. Even so, its agenda goosed Governor Gary Locke, who has now codified $30 tabs. Even an impending initiative can get action, Eyman says. His Traffic Improvement Initiative I-711, which would shift 90 percent of transport funds to roads and open HOV lanes to single-occupancy vehicles, is already spurring elected officials to look at opening up these lanes.

The compromise position on initiatives is to agree that they’re here to stay, but that the initiative system could itself be reformed—by better legal vetting of initiatives so they’ll be overturned by the courts less often (because that makes everyone more cynical), eliminating paid signature gathering, requiring a supermajority vote for passage, and allowing legislatures a chance to act on them before they go to the ballot.

At the end of the evening, it seemed that both Eyman and Broder were flawed messengers for their respective viewpoints. While Broder’s faith in the system and belief in the ultimate wisdom of political elites is sincere, it seems sadly out of touch. For as much as he touts the public process of our political system, there is a highly private parallel one: Back rooms do exist, influence is purchased, the people’s will is subverted.

On the other side, for all Eyman’s fire, desire, and frustration with the system, he seems not to care about the damage some of his laws may do to low-income commuters. He comes from the you’ve-got-to-break-eggs-to-make-an-omelet school. Plus, his new initiatives are not so much about reform per se, but furthering a specific conservative agenda.

Since initiatives aren’t going away—and Broder fears, they may even go national—we’re left to find ways to check-and-balance the initiative process itself without gutting its strength to act as the people’s wild card. A potential solution is for voters to become more hip to the tricks, tactics, cons, and consequences of this brand of lawmaking. Certainly the lessons of I-695 aren’t lost on its author. And they shouldn’t be on the rest of us.

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