Direct Democracy: Is it either?

I’m somewhat notoriously anti-“direct democracy”. One of the first days of my fall class, I intentionally provoke students by asking whether it should be the role of elected officials to vote their own consciences or try to vote the preferences of their constituents. For the most part, they favor the latter, and then I talk about David Adkins, a friend of mine who, as a state senator, pretty much single-handedly defeated Kansas’ first attempt at an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment, even though he knew it was very popular in the state. He said at the time, and has said since, that there are times when popular opinion is just wrong, and that if he had to use his political power to “stand in the schoolhouse door and say, ‘not today, bully'”, then he would.

Six years later, I still get tears in my eyes when I remember that day.

And that’s a lot the way that I feel about ballot measures, still (the Kansas constitutional amendment was put to a vote the next year, and, predictably, passed overwhelmingly). There’s an abundance of examples of how they have gone terribly wrong, on tax policy, civil rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, and many other core social work priorities. Our history, is, I believe, replete with examples of when our populace hasn’t quite collectively caught up to justice, and a crucial role of a representative democracy needs to be serving as a check.

But, while that works for me substantively, it really seems to go against some of the procedural values I hold dear–maximum citizen involvement in the political process, a belief in the wisdom of collective intelligence, a faith in the ability and right of regular people to determine their own fates. Right?

And, much less abstractly, the results of ballot measures in 2008 gave me pause in my standard “fear-of-the-ballot-measure” line of thinking: while gay rights still struggled to gain a foothold across most of the country, anti-Affirmative Action and anti-abortion measures largely failed to even qualify for ballots or were defeated on Election Day.

So I’m qualifying my still-reluctance on ‘direct democracy’. Here are my thoughts:

  • My concern about the voter suppression tendency of ballot measures may be eroding with the rise of Millennials.
    This is my weakest-held opposition to ballot measures, but it has always disturbed me how frequently, when doing voter registration, people express concern about their ability to wade through a ballot with lengthy and often confusing (see below) referenda. When people are discouraged from registering or, ultimately, voting, by their fear of “making the wrong decision” on one of these items, the end result is that segments of our population are left out of the decision making on these ballot measures AND on candidates. This is exacerbated by the horrible propensity of referendum authors to distort language in order to hide a measure’s real intent (anti-Affirmative Action “civil rights initiatives”, anyone?), which absolutely needs to be vigorously enforced if direct democracy is to play any role in our electoral future.
    There’s some evidence, though, that the Millennial generation, far from resisting such opportunities to directly influence public policy, will be drawn into electoral politics by this immediate link, which flips this particular reluctance on its head. Because you know how I feel about Millennials.

  • The use of referenda primarily (or solely) to influence candidates’ outcomes seems to be waning, and even backfiring.
    To a large extent, this is driven by the increasing influence of Millennial voters, and their love of direct democracy (even I know that you vote on American Idol!) and generally more progressive views, but it’s hopefully also at least partially a reflection that progressives have learned how to better organize around issues, not just candidates, how to prepare people for their ballots, and how to mobilize core constituencies to turn out on Election Day. All of this is great news, not just because it means that the use of ballot measures to drive turnout by only certain segments of the population would be diluted, but also because those are the kinds of strategies that will influence public policy within elected bodies, too.

  • Majority rule shouldn’t apply when only a minority is impacted.
    That’s how I feel, and I guess that makes me only ‘kind of’ democratic. What that means, for me, is that I might be willing to accept the idea of tax policy, or public transportation, or environmental regulations being passed through direct ballot measures; we all bear similar consequences under those schemes, so we can all decide our fates together. But I’m still not okay with mainly straight people deciding if gay people deserve equal rights, or mainly white people deciding if people of color deserve a more level playing field. At least, in an elected body, we’ve got a running chance at electing representative representatives, so that we can mitigate against some of the cruelest tendencies of a winner-takes-all majority rule. And that’s not a protection I’m willing to live, or be governed, without.

    So, while I’ve softened quite a bit on my disdain for the ballot measure, for the record, I still think David was right, when an anti-gay senator asked him, “what, don’t you think Kansans should have a right to vote on this?” and he answered, “honestly, no. I wouldn’t have wanted to see how Kansas voters would have decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, either.”

    photo credit, visit Topeka, via Flickr

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  • 2 responses to “Direct Democracy: Is it either?

    1. Love that quote by David Adkins. And so true. I think the only way to help people understand that majority can not always rule, is by bringing up past examples such as slavery and civil rights.
      Although this is another subject, I’m still dumbfounded that in 2010 that we’re still so homophobic. I really thought by this time we would past all that. But I still see even in teens how homosexuality still isn’t accepted and often viewed as wrong. But as I over hear those comments from the teens I’m working with or my son’s friends, I just take the opportunity to educate and challenge their views. But with humor or just a offer them a different perspective.

      • You are so right, Lesa, that we have a long way to go in terms of public opinion on core issues of social justice–like immigrant rights (polls suggest that more than 60% of Americans support AZ SB1070) and equality for the GLBT community…which is why we need other mechanisms of policy change, too, to provide redress for all kinds of minorities. I have full confidence that your kids will grow up understanding these struggles, and their role within them, with you as their mom!

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