[From the Washington Post, July 26, 1977]
ABOUREZK’S BILL: A chance to exercise voter initiative
(By Nicholas von Hoffman)
Jim Abourezk, the Democratic senator from South Dakota, has introduced a constitutional amendment in Congress that would allow voters to pass laws themselves by national referendum. This idea ought to pur foam flakes on the lips of that kind of conservative who likes to remind you that the United States of America is a republic and not a democracy. Still, it is those same conservatives whose tummies fill with acid each time the boys and girls In Congress vote themselves another raise, but with the Initiative, as this referendum procedure is called, the same conservatives could vote that raise out of existence.
In fact, under the Abourezk proposal we could cut Congress’s pay in half. That wouldn’t balance the budget, of course, since it would be a symbolic act, not a true economy, but we have symbols to give us satisfaction when the facts can’t.
The Abourezk proposal Is practical, reasonable and judicious. For a proposition to be put on the ballot, signatures would have to be gathered in at least 10 states and would have to equal in number 3 or more per cent of those who voted In the last presidential election. Thus, to put a proposition such as outlawing subsidies to the tobacco industry on the ballot in time for the next congressional election would require 2.45 million ballot signatures.
The Abourezk amendment wouldn’t give the people the power to declare war—Congress does that often enough already without outside help—or call out the Army or amend the Constitution or pass any law in violation of it.. Thus the courts would have the power to review citizen-made law and nibble it to death just as they erode congressionally made law. Congress would have the power to repeal or amend a law passed by the national referendum, but for the first two years after passage that could only be done by a two-thirds roll call of each house. Thus a simple majority would not be enough to thwart the people’s will, and while It could still be done, those doing it would have to do so in full view of their constituents.
Residents in the 23 states, mostly in the Midwest and Far West, who have the Initiative already, will see nothing disturbing or dangerous in extending the practice to the nation. Experience with it goes back 60 or 70 years, so that If the Initiative was going to have the awful consequences its opponents have prophesied, they should have occurred.
The history of the thing is, as Abourezk says:
“Even when issues do reach the ballot by Initiative, voters traditionally act with restraint. Measures which are very controversial or are unreasonably drafted tend to fail at the polls. Citizens are not likely to qualify a proposal for the ballot, or to subsequently pass such a proposal unless it has widespread support.”
Initiative was proposed and pushed by the turn-of-the-century faction in the Republican party who called themselves The Progressives. As such, it wasn’t a Populist-Radical measure so much as it was a middle-class-reformist one. It’s never been used by lower class or poor people as a political tool because it takes too much money, too much organizing and too much detail work.
In a state like California, with a large, college-educated middle class, it gets considerable use. It can’t make rain when there’s a drought and it can’t put out forest fires, but it certainly has helped to make political discussions _ in that state more exciting and more substantive. With the Initiative there are concrete measures for voters to debate and choose, not only a variety of political smiles and profiles to pick from. Indeed, the existence of these referenda may force candidates to be considerably more forthright. The threat of one may also discipline the state legislature to act on bills it would other-wise let languish for a decade or two in committee.
Abourezk is careful not to claim too much for the Initiative idea. It won’t cure all that ails us; if it stimulates higher voter participation rates that will be nice, but don’t expect it. It may even encourage cowardly national legislators to be dilatory and delay action on controversial bills because they hope a national referendum will take them off the hook.
Nevertheless, the idea is in accord with the times. Abourezk makes the point that six of the 10 last constitutional amendments have extended voting rights in one way or another. Knowing the public sentiment has never been more important to us. It’s no accident that public-opinion polling occupies such a large place in our discussions and its conclusions are taken to be so authoritative. The Initiative Is but a louder and more precise way for the vox populi to speak.