The problem with direct democracy

Tom Schaller says Maryland Democrats who want to limit referendum access are right on merits, wrong on motives

February 05, 2013|Thomas F. Schaller

Last week, top Maryland Democrats announced their intention to make it more difficult to put statewide policy referenda on the ballot. The move is a clear response to Republicans' success last year in putting to referendum policy questions in the hope of achieving victories the GOP couldn't win in the legislature.

The Republicans' ballot plans backfired, most notably the surprising approval by voters of same-sex marriage. But the Democrats, who dominate state politics thanks to large legislative majorities, took notice of the potential threat to their legislative monopoly. And while the Democrats' defense of legislative rule is right on the merits, like the GOP's initial attempt to circumvent the legislature, it's wrong in its motives.

Only this column's most devoted readers know that the two political phenomena I find most noxious are partisan institutionalism — the strengthening or weakening of political institutions for potential partisan gain — and direct democracy, which allows citizens to enact policies directly by circumventing the republican filter of legislative action.

The movement toward establishing initiatives and referenda exploded nationwide during the Populist era. The desire to empower citizens directly is alluring in principle but can be very problematic in practice. If legislators lack the discipline to balance budgets or think beyond the short term, citizen-voters can be even more selfish and less far-sighted.

Consider California, where for the past four decades voters have repeatedly chosen to keep their taxes low while approving public spending for cherished items. Although California's budgetary fortunes have improved lately, the state remains a fiscal mess. Conservatives blame big-spending liberals, and liberals blame revenue-resistant conservatives. Both are right in their damnations because both are guilty.

But what of last November's ballot victories, in Maryland and three other states, for same-sex marriage advocates? The longer history shows that majorities at the ballot tend to deprive minorities of equal representation. Prior to 2012, all 34 previous ballot measures to enact (or prohibit) same-sex marriage, including measures proposed in supposedly liberal states like California, resulted in defeat for marriage equality advocates.

The U.S. Constitution does not provide for direct democracy to enact national policy. And while the Constitution does not prohibit states from using direct democracy — federalism permits each state to determine whether to employ initiatives and referenda — the national charter very clearly requires every state to guarantee its citizens a republican form of government: Every state must have a legislature. In his most famous Federalist essay, Number 10, James Madison explained the founders' belief that the republican form, a representative democracy in which voters select legislators to enact policies on their behalf, is superior to the expression of undiluted public preferences.

Neither of the state parties in Maryland is motivated by adherence to these governing principles, sad to say. Because Republicans control so few seats in Annapolis, they turned to the referendum as an alternative manner for exercising power in state policy; and now the Democrats are trying to make use of the ballot tougher to reinforce that advantage in policy control.

Don't we have enough problems already with partisan institutionalism in America? The gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts has reduced the number of truly competitive seats nationwide, turning legislative elections once fought during the general election between the two parties into intramural fights among each party's primary voters.

Policy fights should be won by persuading the public to elect officials who will fight to pass laws, issue orders and appoint judges who in turn rule in accordance with public preferences. Circumventing the checked-power lawmaking process with referenda, or trying to manipulate the referendum process to embolden or thwart the other party, offends our constitutional traditions.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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