National Referendums

Many States have the option of taking certain issues directly to the people: the legislature can vote to hold a special election on an important issue.

I’ve been thinking: What if we took that on a national level? What if important decisions, like whether to go to war or cut taxes for the rich, were decided by a direct popular vote?

Would this benefit the country?

Having lived in California, I think the referendum process there does more good than harm. I don’t agree with all the propositions that have passed, but I don’t agree with all the legislation, either. It seems to work pretty well to give the citizens a direct voice, when they care deeply enough.

Unfortunately, we have a politician class who are not desirous of giving away their power. They wouldn’t consider a plan to give the people more power.

Generally, Blalron, it’s not so much that the legislature “can vote to hold a special election” on an issue but that the state constitution requires it to do so in certain circumstances. The two most common circumstances are (a) when the legislature proposes an amendment to the state constitution, which must then be ratified by the people; and (b) when the state constitution allows for a citizen initiative process, whereby citizens propose laws by petition which automatically go to a referendum if not approved by the legislature.

I could get behind a federal equivalent of the second process, but not the first. The bar for a nationwide petition drive would have to be pretty high–like maybe a few million signatures with at least 10,000 coming from every state. But I’m sure citizen groups would arise to fulfill those requirements on certain issues. I agree that this would be a good thing–it gives more power to people, less to politicians.

However, I don’t want to have referendums on amendments to the federal Constitution. I’m not sure I trust my fellow Americans that much. We already have the state legislature ratification process, and if you bypass that you remove another check on federal-over-state power grabs.

I agree with that, keep things the way they are for constitutional amendments.

Well, let’s see then. California requires 373,800 signatures out of a population of 33.8 million. So I reckon that one percent of the national population, or 2.8 million out of 280 million, ought to do it for a national initiative–with an additional requirement of at least 0.25% of the population of every state, to demonstrate breadth of support as well as depth.

Somebody will have to verify the accuracy of the petitions and tally the votes in the national referenda. Perhaps Congress can delegate this function to the Secreataries of State, with a minimal national bureaucracy to supervise and collate their work. Congress can compensate them for this out of federal tax revenue if they don’t want to assign another unfunded mandate.

If an initiative meets the certification requirements, Congress has 90 days to accept or reject the proposed law. If they reject it, the referendum will be held in all 50 states and the District of Columbia concurrent with the next biennial Congressional election.

A law passed by initiative would be subject to the same judicial review as any other statute, so we don’t have to worry about an initiative to repeal the First Amendment or abolish the United States Senate.

Imagine some of the initiatives. Liberals would push for universal health care. Conservatives would push for a flat income tax. Libertarians would try to legalize drugs, or at least legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize all marijuana possession (on the federal level). Wouldn’t this be cool?

Now for the hard part–this has to be approved by a constitutional amendment. Good luck getting Congress to give up their choke hold on the legislative process.

Also speaking as a former California resident, “Eh, probably.” There’s quite a few reforms that have been successful and well-needed… but…

My problem with any system of ballot proposition system is that people will vote on an issue, not a proposal. I have no problem with more or less cut-and-dried issues, such as issuing bonds, or whether a country should join the European Union.

But ballot propositions are at their worst when it comes to legislating shades of gray. I think of that episode of the Simpsons: “And if elected, I promise abortions for all!” (Crowd boos) “I mean, abortions for none!” (Crowd boos) (“I mean, abortions for some, but not for others!” (Crowd cheers.)

My main problem with California’s system is that it now thrives on issues that are not cut-and-dried. I remember some time in the 80s when there were like four different proposals on car insurance on the ballot. Not too long ago there were competing plans for campaign finance reform.

I consider myself pretty up on politics, but that stuff is WAY over my head. It made me shiver to think that 32 million other Californians were making such important decisions based on little more than TV ads and a cursory examination of a huge pamphlet that explains everything in thick legalese.

So, national referenda? Eh, I’m not really favorable to the idea. Perhaps if there were some black-or-white issue - like, allow Britain into NAFTA, or adopt America the Beautiful as the national anthem. But I don’t think it’s a smart way to make laws.

Ha! You think most of your elected representatives bother to read most of the thick legalese that THEY pass?

Speaking as someone who still lives in CA, I’d say “maybe”. I pretty much agree wtih Raveman. Adding to the deal on car insurance, there actually were 2 that were contradictory and had a chance of being enacted. Overall, I’ve been unimpressed by the initiatives on the ballot, but it is a very cherished right out here. I’d only favor it if:

  1. The bar were set very high (as per some of the suggestions already presented).
  2. We could limit the number of initiatives (maybe only the top 3-5 get on the ballot)
  3. Could not madate new spending without also specifying how it would be funded.

We’d also have to decide whether to use an Electoral College type voting system, or popular vote. Precident would say an EC type system, and I think the small states would demand it. I would favor that as well. There is currently no national popular vote for anything in the US.

One of the problems with referendums: What if somehow, two measures which are diametrically opposed to each other somehow pass?

That problem isn’t unique to referendums. Lawyers have to deal with laws in conflict all the time. There are various guidelines–a more specific provision takes precedence over a more general, a more recent law over a less recent law, and so forth.