Direct Democracy and Ballot Initiatives


Midterm congressional elections will be lively this year.   Conditions are ripe for tax and spending initiatives and numerous recall elections are also on the popular agenda.  Budget deficits, rising taxation and runaway spending are factors leading to tax and spending limitations.  Anger at the federal government sometimes gets played out at the state and local level where people can air their views in the local media and have greater influence on budgets, tax levies and spending. 

The combination of denied credit, deeper debt, harsh taxation…led the discontented to suspect a conspiracy by the moneyed interests of the country to enslave them in a web of economic servitude.

(From David Schmidt, on the rise of the initiative and referendum movement in the 1880’s. Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution, Temple University Press, 1991)

The same characteristics that showed up in the 1970’s and today were present in the original initiative movement.  Indebted farmers and frontiersmen who had moved out west felt that they were subject to the special interests of industrialist bankers, railroad barons and land speculators.  The boom and bust cycles of westward development left a rift between the farmers and frontiersmen and the groups that they saw as the exploiters.  It was the farmer’s belief that these greedy influences had corrupted the legislatures and that they were being taxed to help those special interests. 

In the late 1880’s the number of farm foreclosures exploded and a vast number of farms were taken over by the loan companies.  Out of this era came the Farmer’s Alliance which later developed into the Populist Party.    The right of citizens to directly create laws through the initiative movement – “direct democracy” — stems back to this time and later with the Progressive Party.  These groups were strongest in Texas, the Dakotas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, California, Colorado and elsewhere in the South and West.  Ballotpedia, a “wiki”, or open electronic encyclopedia, (like “wikipedia”) shows the following map of states that permit initiatives, referenda and constitutional amendment.

Click twice to enlarge
Click twice to enlarge

In the 1970’s rapidly rising real estate values accompanied by a tax structure that captured an increasing proportion of homeowner’s income in property taxes again led to significant voter unrest.  That time period gave us California’s Proposition 13 in 1978, passed by two-thirds of the state’s voters and reducing property taxes 57%.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s California had experienced an extraordinary growth in property values and in tax bills, largely due to inflation and dramatic increases in population.  In Massachusetts, prior to passage of Proposition 2 ½, state and local taxes grew from 103% of the national average to 124% of the national average.  Idaho, which passed Petition No 1 in 1978, had seen residential taxes nearly double between 1969 and 1978.  Later, Colorado voters passed the “taxpayer bill of rights” or TABOR which sought to significantly limit government (1992).  (TABOR has subsequently been loosened but a movement is afoot to roll back the liberalization of the original law.)

The presence of a committed and zealous individual or group is another key ingredient.  Although some dismiss these individuals or groups as “cranks”, they will persist in introducing ballot measures year after year, until something passes.  Howard Jarvis in California and Bill Sizemore in Oregon are two well-known names.  Today’s Tea Party groups are spawning new leaders in this effort. 

Demographics play a part in initiative and referenda movements as well – states with lots of retirees like Florida, Arizona and California – have ready workers with time on their hands to get petitions signed and talk with the neighbors.  In addition, the continuous migration of people from place to place has intensified demographic differences. 

The “pick-up-and-go” mindset in the U.S. has led people to sort themselves into like-minded communities – reinforcing particular political viewpoints.  “Over the past thirty years, the United States has been sorting itself, sifting at the most microscopic levels of society, as people have packed children, CDs, and the family hound and moved…When they look for a place to live, they run through a checklist of amenities: Is there the right kind of church nearby? The right kind of coffee shop? …When people move, they also make choices about who their neighbors will be and who will share their new lives. Those are now political decisions, and they are having a profound effect on the nation’s public life…In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide.  By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties.”  (Bill Bishop, The Big Sort, Houghton Mifflin, 2008)  Another of Bishop’s key points is that interacting primarily with like-minded people tends to make a group’s political viewpoint and perspective more extreme.  Electronic social media also plays this role.  The use of the Internet, blogs, Twitter and YouTube for grass roots campaigns has made it easier to create, inform and activate like-minded communities.

The sorting, polarizing and intensifying of political views has created gridlock in many state and the federal legislatures. Maintaining the primacy of one’s political party and political viewpoints often win out over collaborating to create effective policy. “California’s primary system and gerrymandered Assembly and Senate districts, both parts of the Constitution, consistently produce candidates from the ideological extremes.  In such an atmosphere, party orthodoxy rules all, and crossing the line to compromise is political suicide.  For this reason, real, desperately needed change is blocked at every turn, and only bills like regulating tanning booths actually escape alive.”  This is from Jim Wunderman in the San Francisco Chronicle last summer.     Examples are easy to find in the state legislatures, notably California and the embarrassing New York State Legislature where Democrats physically locked out the Republicans last summer.  At the Federal level too, Republicans’ refusal to vote on any proposals from the Democrats or collaborate on sensible solutions is a further example of this polarization.

Finally, funding for initiatives and referenda has become big business for some proponents.  In California and elsewhere, gathering petitions and paying for advertising campaigns has spawned a well-funded cottage industry.  The recent Supreme Court decision permitting corporations and unions unrestricted campaign funding will inevitably reinforce the trend. 

Grassroots groups are reacting.  The Tea Party is an example of the tension between the grassroots and organized parties.  The Tea Party is a loose and in some areas unaffiliated collection of organizations.  Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Express and Tea Party Patriots are among the few national organizations.  Tea Party Patriots has accused Tea Party Nation of co-opting the name from the grassroots movement and receiving support from the GOP.  Teapartynation.org is sponsoring the first national convention on February 4-6 in Nashville, Tennessee and Sarah Palin is the featured speaker.  Complaints about the hefty registration and GOP support are common.  A lawsuit erupted in Florida over the registration of the name as a political party.  The defendants argue that the name stands for “taxed enough already”.  The blog site “TPM Muckraker” has some interesting coverage of these various party disputes.

Whatever your affiliation, ballot initiatives will likely affect state and local government finance as well as governance in the next year.  It is worth following these trends.  Along with Ballotpedia, we recommend the Initiative and Referenda Institute at the University of Southern California as a good resource, as well as the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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