Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats may have won last week on a platform of dramatic policy change, but many states already beat them to the punch. After Tuesday’s election, same-sex couples won’t be allowed to marry in California, Florida and Arizona, doctors will be able to legally assist patient suicides in Washington, affirmative action will be outlawed in Nebraska and medical marijuana and embryonic stem cell research will be legal in Michigan. All of these changes are products of states’ flawed system of ballot initiatives. As this year stands testament to, either the current initiative system must be changed to make the process fairer and the choices more intelligent, or it must be eliminated completely.

Popularized during America’s Progressive Era, ballot initiatives are a form of direct democracy in which citizens, rather than state legislatures, enact state laws or constitutional amendments. Ideally, these initiatives cut out the political middleman on issues that matter to people and engage people in the grassroots democracy that puts legislators to task when they don’t respond to their constituents’ concerns.

“Ideally” is the operative word, though, when it comes to ballot initiatives. In practice, ballot initiatives have been strayed far from their democratic ideals. They have become an easy way for powerful, wealthy individuals and groups to enact controversial and poorly thought-out policy — measures that are often constitutional and difficult to reverse.

The trouble starts with the powerful interest groups and individuals — often not even based in the state in which they are working toward passing an initiative — who bankroll, solicit signatures for and push through these measures. Take, for instance, the 1997 ballot initiative in Washington that proposed funding a new football stadium for the Seattle Seahawks. Microsoft executive Paul Allen, owner of the Seattle Seahawks, Allen financed the entire campaign with millions of dollars of his own money to get this measure on the ballot and pass it. Not surprisingly, his deep-pocketed campaign met little resistance and passed, despite its broad fiscal consequences.

Shortsighted measures like this might not be all that harmful if elected legislators, who know the ins and outs of these issues, could easily patch up the problems when some of these measures pass. But most of the time, especially in Michigan, ballot initiatives seek constitutional amendments. That usually means a two-thirds majority in two legislative houses is required to change these amendments after only a simple majority of voters passed them.

Because of its relative ease, the current system of ballot initiatives also offers the opportunity for discriminatory proposals to be turned into legislation. Because ballot initiatives put the legislative power in the majority’s hands, it easily allows minority groups’ rights to be trampled. This is what is happening in states across the country where amendments banning gay marriage have passed. Comprising only about 4 percent of the electorate, gay people are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to protect their rights. That’s simply not how basic protections should be determined.

The solution lies in either overhauling the current ballot initiative system to truly make this a grassroots form of democracy or abandoning this as a worthy experiment in democracy that failed. Considering the campaign finance laws that would stand in the way of limiting interest groups’ influence and the legislative hurdles that would need to be overcome to fix the many flawed components of this system, the latter option is probably the more realistic one.

And here’s one easy way to enact it: a ballot initiative seeking a constitutional amendment banning ballot initiatives.

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