DIRECT DEMOCRACY VIA REFERENDA

From Washington Star, November 6, 1976

DIRECT DEMOCRACY VIA REFERENDA

 (By Ralph Nader)

In any analysis of the recent election returns, the burgeoning Importance of Issues being decided by direct popular vote—the other elections, they might be called—deserves more than passing notice. For these referenda on con­sumer, tax, environmental, spending, energy and government disclosure sub­jects reflect the growing maturity of the citizen action movement.

Bypassing political parties and reliance on the promise of politicians, the citizen action movement Involves the patient gathering of thousands of voter signatures on petitions to place these questions on the ballot. It is a form of direct democracy.

Most of these citizen groups are shoestring operations whose lack of funds Is made up for by determination and imagination. It is no easy task to obtain as many as 500,000 signatures of voters on petitions as the People’s Lobby (3456 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 9009) has done In California to political reform measures.

Many people have to believe in the necessity for utility rate reform and a permanent consumer organization for residential utility consumers to do what Bob Koitz and his hardy associates did in Ohio for their ballot proposals. Outspent a hundredfold by the utility and other giant corporations, the Ohioans for Utility Reform (P.O. Box 10006, Columbus, 0. 43201) put a valiant fight in what they promise to be only the first round of an enduring struggle for consumer justice.

In Massachusetts, a grass roots civic group called Mass. Fair Share (864 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116) displayed impressive organizing and publiciz­ing skill in advancing to the ballot the reasonable notion that the venerable utility gouge which made the small user of electricity pay much more per kilowatt hour than the larger industrial electricity user needed an overhaul. The entire might of the state’s Industry, commerce and many high state gov­ernment officials was thrown against Fair Share. Why, you might ask, would government officials oppose such a presumably popular issue! More out of  worry that direct democratic action would begin to challenge their powers of decision-making and, too often, the cushy relationship legislators have built up with friendly corporate lobbyists.

Direct referenda are used throughout the country for a variety of conserv­ative and liberal causes. But this instrument of direct voter expression is by no means uniform throughout the states. It is much stronger in the western states than in the south and east.

Earlier this month, over 300 issues were subject to direct vote at the state election level. The number will increase as more people perfect the petition process and more community, consumer and other civic groups deepen their roots and expand their resources.

The defeat of many consumer and environment referenda is usually caused by an overwhelming television campaign which grossly distorts the question on the ballot and raises the false specter of massive unemployment. The atomic power industry and its allies used this scare technique together with millions of dollars to reach the public in several states this month.

Consumers interested n obtaining information from the California, Ohio and Massachusetts groups can send a self-addressed stamped envelop to the above-mentioned addresses.

 

 

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