Like many states, election seasons in Michigan brings street corners littered with yard signs bearing not just the names of politicians, but also carrying exhortations to vote “Yes” or “No” on various ballot initiatives. Those simple expressions of endorsement or opposition to ballot proposals, many of which carry no indication of the proposal’s subject, belie the importance they have assumed. In many ways the ballot proposals we vote on have become as important as the politicians we elect. They have grown in popularity and potency as interest groups frustrated with the legislative process have increasingly turned to referendums to accomplish their goals.

Paul Wong
Peter Cunniffe

Allowing state codes and even constitutions to be amended through the use ballot of initiatives is a relatively common practice, justified as giving citizens a direct role in governing their states. Unfortunately, like all elections in a system where money and slick ads decide more elections than policy, the referendum process has become another way for special interests to buy the governance they want.

A good illustration is this year’s Proposal 02-4, which would amend the state constitution to require 90 percent of Michigan’s tobacco settlement money (about $300 million per year) to be directed to various nonprofit health care providers and foundations and anti-smoking programs. While funding such things is a reasonable enough goal, the proposal would take the money from a $100 million college scholarship program funded by the settlement as well as blow a large hole in the state budget currently being plugged by the tobacco money. Let’s not forget the settlement was meant to compensate us for health care expenditures we were forced to make. Why should we be forced to spend the reimbursement on the same thing? And are we really comfortable with a system whereby the constitution can be amended by a simple majority of largely disinterested voters?

Referendums are great in theory because they provide a way to bypass legislatures – our own being a prime example – that act irresponsibly, put political interests ahead of public interests and continually fail to consider worthy legislation. However, referendums may cause even larger disconnects between the public interest and the laws enacted than bad legislators ever do.

The flaw of direct democracy is the public’s lack of interest in it. Even among the shrinking number of us who bother to vote at all, few have any idea what initiatives we will be presented with before we enter the voting booth. And to ask people to consider even the simplest legislation as they’re standing there reading a summary of a proposed statute, the implications of which they may have never thought about before this moment, is a ridiculous way to gauge what they actually think about it. Many don’t bother voting on the referendums or just pick their vote randomly.

A few referendums, of course, are hot topics and people will have heard of them and thought about how they will vote. But often their decisions are based on advertisements that, like all campaign ads, have less to do with substance than with saying anything necessary to further the interests of whomever is paying for them.

There are also structural problems with many proposals. Consider Proposal 02-1, which would end straight ticket voting, require expedited vote counting in close presidential elections, permit voters in a polling place to correct errors they make on the ballot and create penalties for stealing campaign signs, among other things. This proposal makes eight different changes to existing election law with one vote. Asking voters, largely on the spur of the moment, to weigh these eight changes against each other and decide if, on balance, this proposal deserves support is asking for a sloppy decision making process.

The referendum process doesn’t always produce bad law, but it produces a lot of law neither the people nor the state government have any real interest in. Legislators, influenced by special interests though they may be, at least understand the impact, especially the fiscal impact, of their policies.

Referendums should not be done away with because they are often the only thing providing a check on some truly horrendous policies. For example, the war on drugs, because of the overwhelmingly powerful interests it sustains, has become unchallengeable by legislators at the state and federal level. Only state ballot initiatives have provided modest softening of our unjust drug laws and they seem to be the only hope for spurring further change. Unfortunately, referendums are too often nothing but cons for the benefit of a few. Changes such as restricting ballot initiatives to making only one alteration in the law or general campaign finance reform would help fix the referendum process. However, the only way referendums will ever fulfill their purpose of serving the public interest is if people pay attention to them. Voters, such as those students whose scholarships are on the ballot this fall, need to realize how important referendums have become to issues with direct and important effects on them. Governing is an important responsibility and one we neglect at our peril.

Peter Cunniffe can be reached at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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