Initiative & Referendum Has Great Track Record
I want to follow up on Justin Hauke’s and David Stokes’ entries about the initiative process. Primarily, I take issue with Justin’s worry that "The initiative process tends to encourage interest-group politics. If a small group of committed people band together, they can pass some pretty stupid laws." While this is certainly true, I have to point out that committed groups of legislators pass laws that are far more stupid, with much greater regularity. So, while the initiative process certainly doesn’t guarantee good results, the real question is how those results stack up to the record of legislators themselves.
And, all things considered, the track record of initiative and referendum throughout the nation is great. For every misguided minimum wage increase and tax hike that voters pass, there are dozens of initiatives that have cut taxes, slashed spending, passed term limits (on legislators who wouldn’t have done it to themselves in a million years), and generally made elected officials more accountable to the public in many ways.
I also disagree with David Stokes’ good-government optimism the notion that if we don’t like how our elected officials govern us, we can always replace them. Luckily, that’s more true in Missouri than in many other states, thanks to our legislative term limits that help break the stranglehold of incumbency. It’s not enough, though. The initiative process acts as a check on both legislative excess and timidity and as a check on the initiative process itself (many times, citizens have struck down laws that they later recognize to be bad choices).
I have a background that’s liable to give me my own biases in favor of initiative and referendum laws after all, I spent years working with the venerable Paul Jacob, who founded Citizens in Charge (not to mention Dane Waters, who I helped to relaunch the Initiative & Referendum Institute website a few years ago, before the group was affiliated with USC; check out the nifty U.S. image map I made). Really, though, I believe the initiative process is valuable not because of personal loyalty to friends and colleagues, but because the data is so convincing.
There tend to be other objections to the initiative process: Don’t wealthy people sneak in from out of town and "trick" local voters to pass something they don’t really want? Well, there may be a lot of spending going on, but there is no evidence that these efforts have tricked anybody. Voters have repeatedly shot down initiatives with the biggest funding. Don’t initiatives stand in contravention of our representative republican form of government? Nope, not at all.
The initiative process is, by far, more a tool for good than for mischief. By all means, petitioners should be held accountable for the signatures they collect, but laws that prohibit out-of-state petitioners or paid signature-gathering are blatant violations of the First Amendment (in conjunction with the Fourteenth), and encroach on the spirit of the Full Faith and Credit Clause, if not its most common interpretation.
I’ll end with the wise words of my pal Paul Jacob, who last year wrote his own take on Missouri officials’ efforts to pare down initiative rights:
Raising the bar to make citizen initiatives more difficult impacts the powerful groups the least. They can spend to overcome such hurdles. It’s the grassroots groups that get cut out.
And that’s no accident.
With so much of politics locked up by powerful career politicians and special interests, the voter initiative process is the one area they just can’t quite control. Voters are liable to think up all manners of reforms from term limits to state spending caps. And no matter how much special interests spend, voters manage to enact critical reforms.
With government as big as Goliath, the initiative hands David a slingshot.