Why Voter Initiative is Not Incompatible with Representative Democracy

In previous postings, Don has discussed some of his reservations about voter initiative. Don’s reservations, however, should not be confused with the weakest argument against voter initative, the argument that VI is inherently an affront to American-style representative democracy.
In a Projo op-ed, State Representative John Patrick Shanley frets that “Voter initiative lacks the elements that representative democracy provides (for all its faults) to ensure policies and priorities for all its citizens.” In the Pawtucket Times, Jim Baron quotes Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, as saying…

“Democrats are supporting a republican form of government while Republicans are supporting what has been called direct democracy.
“Voter initiative does not work,” Walsh said flatly. Some initiative proposals could be “devastating to public education and other public institutions.”
And at RI Future, the host of the site, in his typically overwrought style, objects that “Voter Initiative undermines democracy at its core.”
They’re all wrong, particularly with respect to the Rhode Island version of VI. Here’s why.
The designers of the American constitutional system, believers in limited government that they were, did not create a two-house legislature because they believed that twice as much government to be twice as good. They created two houses to serve two different purposes.
One of the houses was a “Senate” whose members served long terms and were not subject to a popular vote (remember, Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures). This structure was designed to allow Senators to do what was right, even if it was not popular at the time they did it. The hope was that Senators would be drawn from an educated elite and carefully deliberate the needs of the country and the needs of the government when passing laws.
But elites are not angels. The founders understood that the elites would also have their own interests, and might use government to further them at the expense of everyone else (hmmm, sound familiar?). To guard against this possibility, the founders also created a “House of Representatives” with a structure very different from the structure of the Senate. Representatives were directly elected by the people, their terms of office were much shorter, and the whole House had to stand for election during each cycle. The hope here was that the House would be the branch of government that closely mirror and protect the interests of the common people.
For a combination of reasons — an increasing population probably the most important, but also gerrymandering, the increasing complexity of campaign finance laws making it difficult for challengers to get started, and rules that make the House leaders very powerful statewide without being accountable to all of a state’s voters — it hasn’t always worked out out as designed in state legislatures. The “lower” houses of many legislatures have become effectively insulated from the voters, and have become more likely to represent the views of elites and special interests than they are to represent the views of average people.
The final result, in Rhode Island at least, is that instead of having a government composed of a House and a Senate, we’ve ended up with two Senates (ask yourself, is there any difference between your civic relationship with your State Senator and your State Rep?) and, as the design considerations predict, with a legislative process with very limited checks on the power of elite special interests.
All voter initiative does is create a alternative pathway through the government where the interests of the people can be represented without being ignored by self-interested elites who have captured the legislative process. In American-style constitutional democracy, it is not uncommon for a legislative process to have multiple possible paths. Using the Federal government as an example, a bill passed by both houses becomes law with either a Presidential signature OR a 2/3 override vote. A constitutional amendment can be proposed by either both houses of Congress OR a series of conventions called in the states. Voter initiative fits into this tradition; a proposed bill becomes a law through either the legislative process OR through voter initiative.
A slightly better solution might be to have voter initiative be a process by which a bill can become law by bypassing the house, while still requiring Senate (full Senate only, no killing a bill in a single committee allowed) and Gubernatorial approval. But the current voter initiative proposal, where the people can be represented in the initative process, and our dual-chamber Senate can still act on or repeal a passed initiative, is a reasonable step towards restoring some necessary balance to state government.

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Anchor Rising
18 years ago

Tocqueville on State Legislatures

Here’s a historical addendum to Andrew’s point about Voter Initiative and it’s purported incompatibility with Representative government. concerning the bicameral state legislature’s of the early 19th century seem to imply that they already were getting…

Michael Gersh
18 years ago

While we do have a serious problem with the power of incumbency having hijacked our democracy to a certain extent, mob rule is not necessarily the best answer. Putting the Senate over VI solves just half of the problem. IMHO, giving the executive veto power over VI, with the supermajority override possible, is a better choice. The executive and the courts thus would check and balance the mob, while the legislative, which has clearly taken leave of their responsibilities in favor of personal aggrandisemant, would be supplanted by the citizens, in cases of either the legislature ignoring the will of the people, or just plain feathering their own nest.

18 years ago

By the way, great blog! Great things can sometimes be found in small places. (RI)

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