|The Washington Post, Friday, January 20, 1978
The Case for Law by Initiative
Just 58 years ago, American women were still denied the right to vote. Fighting to the last, opponents of women’s suffrage no doubt argued that this constitutional change ran contrary to all the wisdom of the Constitution’s framers. After all, they argued, if women were supposed to vote, the right would have been granted by our forefathers in the 18th century.
It is now 1978 and the same faulty logic is advanced (in an op-ed column by Michael Malbin on Jan. 7) to oppose the right of Americans to vote on federal issues.
The proposal in question is the Voter Initiative Amendment, sponsored by James It. Jones (D-Okla.) and Harold S. Sawyer R-Mich.) in the House, and James Abourezk (D-S.D.) and Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) in the Senate. It would give citizens the power to place proposed laws on the national ballot, after petitioning about 2% million registered voters. A majority vote would directly enact the proposal into law.
Malbin’s main opposing argument — ‘ that the framers didn’t provide for initiative, so why should we? — is somewhat shortsighted, to say the !east. The fact is, the framers failed to include many rights in the original Constitution, not the least of which were voting privileges for over half the adult population. To quote noted constitutional scholar Arthur S. Miller on the subject, “The Constitution has never been interpreted in ways to give sole authority to the views of the Founding Fathers, even if those views are ascertainable; usually, they are not.”
Continuing this testimony, delivered to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Miller said, “I fully support [the Voter Initiative Amendment] and believe that its adoption by the Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures would be a salutary and. progressive addition to the Constitution.”
Far from being a radical idea, public votes on policy questions have traditionally played a key role in American government. In most states, school taxes, bond issues and state constitutional amendments are considered too important to enact without a public vote.
Initiative has an impressive track record in the 23 states now authorizing its use. According to research done by the Library of Congress, in the 80 years of initiative use some 1200 issues have been voted on. Many landmark reforms were pioneered by initiative. Direct election of senators, abolishment of poll taxes, workmen’s compensation, and tax and political reform are just a few of the issues tackled by voters at the ballot box, in the face of an unresponsive legislature.
It is remarkable that our present method of selecting presidential candidates was first adopted by initiative In Oregon in 1910. Voters in other states followed Oregon’s lead and used initiative to establish our modern presidential-preference primary system.
Despite the creditable history of initiative, however, myths still surround the process. For instance, Malbin attributes the complex California ballot to initiatives, when in reality that state has voted on an average of fewer than two citizen initiatives a year in the last decade. This compares with an average of over 10 measures a year put on the ballot by the legislature itself.
Even when initiatives do reach the ballot, the public votes with restraint by passing only about one in three proposed laws. Because initiatives are so widely debated and subjected to far greater public scrutiny than laws considered in the legislature, the people are “tricked” by special interests probably much less often than politicians. Miller summed this up by stating:
“There is no reason to believe that the quality of legislation [produced by initiative] would be inferior to that produced by Congress. As everyone knows, or should know, congressional statutes are often hammered out on the anvil of compromise, and thus tend to reach a low common denominator. On the other hand, it seems plausible that initiatives could be drafted in ways that would eliminate many of the lacunae now lurking in federal statutes [because of those compromises]. The experience in those states that now have initiative procedures would tend to support that position.”
As a means for more precise communication between the people and the institutions of government, voter initiative will inject our federal system with greater accountability and citizen participation. With the further check and balance of the public’s proposing~ and enacting its own laws, our elected officials will begin to represent the peoples more accurately and responsively, thus strengthening our representative system as a whole.
The writer is a national director of Initiative America.
(Added as explanation by People’s Lobby: In the mid-70’s People’s Lobby obtained an old yellow school bus and set Roger Telschow and John Forster, who were later joined by David Schmidt, chugging across country to educate people on the need for Initiative America. Their work resulted in 1977 Senate Judiciary Hearings on the proposed Voter Initiative Constitutional Amendment.)