Direct Democracy or Representative Republic: Which Do You Prefer?
I generally prefer the actions of a representative republic over those of a direct democracy. Yesterday’s Kansas City Star had a sound article about the recently failed mayoral recall, and then dove into the larger questions of referendums, petitions, and recalls. The article explains:
Direct democracy — the ability of citizens to enact and overturn laws and representatives through initiative, referendum and recall petitions — has been a fixture of Missouri politics for a century and is deeply embedded in Kansas City’s charter, its governing document.
St. Louis County’s charter is pretty open to these things as well. St. Louis city’s rules are crazy, though, if you remember the spat of recall elections a few years back during which recalls were being used as nothing more than a weapon to continue fighting a losing campaign. (Not every recall during that period was unjustified, though, in my opinion.)
Perhaps I am being inconsistent, because I readily admit I love the Hancock Amendment and its requirements for voting on most tax increases. But for the most part, I support allowing elected officials to make decisions and then having the voters judge those decisions at the next election. Recalls should be saved for misconduct, and time spent working for initiative petitions would be better spent, in my opinion, convincing legislators to introduce and support those same proposals. If that fails, convince new people to run for office on a platform of those proposals. If that fails, maybe you need to admit that nobody likes your stupid idea.
Some of my erstwhile allies in the article do a pretty good job of changing my own opinion, however:
“I think the legislative process at its best is far superior to the initiative process,” said Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, a group proposing major reforms in the state’s initiative and referendum procedures.
In a recent study — which refers to voters as government’s fourth branch — Stern’s group found that initiative petitions “are frequently too long and complex. … Voters frequently struggle to make informed decisions.”
With friends like these … I guess you have to really love government to envision it “acting at its best,” and I bet legislators “struggle to make informed decisions,” too. How many officials actually read the stimulus bill? And voters are the dumb ones?
What I don’t like is the ease of putting new laws on the ballot, like they have in California. New laws should be hard to enact, with checks and balances, not just put on the ballot because some group has enough funding to pay signature gatherers. (A practice that should be legal, by the way, just not encouraged.)
While I prefer letting legislators do, or better yet, not do, their jobs, I agree it is important to keep the options of petitions, recalls, etc. available. I think their mere presence has a positive impact, especially in controlling the most unethical behaviors. Some times the petition process has been crazy, and sometimes it has been outstanding. I am sure it has a higher batting average than legislators themselves, but I still think it should be used as a check and balance, not the primary way we make decisions.