We’re not big fans of citizen initiatives. They are end runs around what, in a perfect world, should be a legislative process carried out by elected representatives in a deliberative and bipartisan fashion.
But it’s not a perfect world – far from it, as John McCain so eloquently pointed out Thursday on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He then put his money where his mouth was by casting the deciding Republican vote against yet another repeal/replace bill on Obamacare.
McCain and the Senate don’t have to worry about citizen initiatives – unless enough states agree to call a Constitutional Convention. Faced with gridlock within their own party, Republicans inside the Beltway will now have to sit down with Democrats, craft bipartisan health reform, then hold hearings and floor debates. It might be messier than Mitch McConnell’s “My way or the highway” dictum, but we’re pretty certain it’s what most voters expect of Congress – even if they don’t agree with the ultimate results.
INITIATIVE BAKED IN
In Arizona, where the citizen initiative is baked into the state constitution, the entrenched interests have not been able to fend off grassroots reform of what had become a closed, self-perpetuating system. Citizens have endorsed public financing for statewide and legislative candidates, an independent commission to redraw legislative and congressional districts rather than politicians, and a statewide minimum wage. They even passed a law prohibiting lawmakers from undoing citizen initiatives by legislative fiat.
It’s this last initiative that has given legislative leaders fits, even though the courts have said any initiative must come with its own funding source. Voters, the leaders say, are too easily swayed by special interests mounting self-serving campaigns for things like medical marijuana and casino gaming. If you want mob rule, why not do away with the Legislature altogether, they ask?
We might have been more sympathetic to this argument before Citizens United unleashed a torrent of campaign cash on behalf of hardline primary candidates who adopt the same tunnel vision as their funders. In Arizona, the mantra is no new taxes even if it starves the schools, as little regulation of the free market as possible and tighter voting rules that fall hardest on minorities and the poor – the very groups least likely to vote for entrenched interests. Redistricting even by a citizen commission ran afoul of federal civil rights protections for minorities that concentrated Democrats in too few competitive districts, and public campaign financing has been overwhelmed by independent spending committees that use wedge issues to drive out substance. Even in the U.S. Senate, the filibuster is the tactic not of last resort but everyday strategy, so polarized have the sides become.
DENY BALLOT ACCESS
And now, the Republicans have decided that if they can’t undo citizen initiatives in the Legislature, they will just deny petitioners access to the ballot altogether. The majority passed and the governor signed bills outlawing paying initiative and referendum petition circulators by the signature (too much temptation to forge signatures, they said) and holding petitions to a strict compliance standard – every name and address must match the voter rolls exactly and conform precisely to the petition form.
As we noted above, we’re not enamored of citizen petitions. But when political inequality on the campaign trail, at the polling place and in the Legislature has become so tilted, we can see why an end run around representative democracy and an appeal to the grassroots seems like the only course left. The alternative, as several commentators have noted, is a vote for someone like Trump, who plays upon the unfairness of the new economy and its job insecurity, wage stagnation and wealth gap to appeal not to more open voting and representation but closed borders, withdrawing from trade agreements and restricting security alliances. The bad guys are not the captains of industry and finance seeking economic advantage through self-serving donations but the little guys – immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and journalists – who historically are easy prey for demagogues.
We don’t know what the cure is nationally for the growing closed system as long as Citizens United stands. But in Arizona, we already have term limits and public funding of campaigns – the latter, however, needs more money, not less. And why not try open primaries, as have the states of Washington and California, in the interest of more middle-ground candidates? Lawmakers who devalue the constitutional right to the initiative aren’t likely to be convinced to change their minds at a legislative or court hearing. They need to be replaced and the initiative protections restored.
Ideally, those rights would need to be used only sparingly. But knowing they have been restored would mean that we are back on the road to a political equality that is the only way to begin to address widening economic inequality. Given how wide that gap has already become, it’s a process that can’t start too soon.
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