A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.
-Gerald Ford; Presidential address to a joint session of Congress (12 August 1974)
After a flurry of ballot initiatives this year, you may get an earful about the flaws of initiative and referendum. This November alone you’ve probably seen initiatives pass that you like and agree with, and some that you don’t. When something stinky passes, it’s easy to criticize the process and feel like restraining it would keep things like that from happening. But there’s a baby in that bathwater, and that’s the critical ability to still have the power to make important changes when government redress fails.
So this week I thought I’d respond to a few things you might hear from someone with a case of the sour grapes:
“You know, the U.S. isn’t a democracy. It’s a republic.”
True that. Our structure is not that of a pure democracy. But when I talk about ballot initiatives and democracy, I’m generally talking about the idea that the supreme power rests with the people. The ballot initiative is not an opportunity to vote on everything under the sun. It is a chance to weigh in on a handful of issues that a large number of voters felt had been overlooked, handled poorly, or not sufficiently addressed by elected officials.
It’s an important recourse for voters whose concerns cannot or will not be addressed legislatively. Issues like campaign finance reform, term limits and the Hancock Amendment were censures to the power of the legislature. Even when the initiative petition isn’t exercised, the authority of Missouri voters to approve or reject new tax increases, for instance, likely brings policy-making closer in line with the will of Missourians.