Power to the people

National | CITIZEN INITIATIVES: Direct democracy is being tapped to settle issues from the profound to the obscure

Issue: "America votes 1998," Oct. 31, 1998

While politicians of all stripes are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get themselves elected Nov. 3, voters are increasingly choosing to take the law into their own hands, by-passing completely their elected representatives. State ballot initiatives, now legal in about half the states, have become so popular that some lawmakers are trying to limit their growth. In one of its first cases this term, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to a Colorado law that put strict limitations on the referendum process. Judging from the tone of questioning in that case, court-watchers expect such limitations to be struck down, clearing the way for even more ballot initiatives in the future.

With the right to by-pass state lawmaking bodies, voters sometimes get a bit over-enthusiastic, cramming obscure, pet projects onto already crowded ballots. In California, a wealthy equestrienne has spent a half-million dollars pushing a ballot initiative that would ban the slaughter of horses in California and outlaw the selling of horsemeat for human consumption. (California has not a single horse-slaughtering facility.)

Most ballot initiatives, however, have the potential for serious, long-term consequences. In Missouri, gambling operators are asking voters to overrule the state supreme court and allow "riverboat casinos" that actually float in land-locked moats with no access to proper rivers. And in California's most expensive referendum ever, Indian tribes are asking voters for the right to run casinos on their reservations with almost no government oversight.

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With Jack Kevorkian's lawyer at the top of the Democratic ballot in Michigan, that state's referendum on physician-assisted suicide has garnered more than its share of national attention. If approved, Proposal B would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients with less than six months to live. Although early polls showed broad backing for the measure, a television blitz funded by church and medical groups has steadily eroded support, and even proponents are now predicting defeat. Thus, Michigan would become the fourth state to defeat an assisted-suicide initiative; only in Oregon has such a measure been successful.

In another effort being pitched as a medical issue, three states and the District of Columbia will allow voters to decide whether marijuana should be legalized for medicinal purposes. Though religious and law enforcement groups uniformly oppose the measure, polls show support levels as high as 75 percent, thanks to financial backing from a handful of wealthy businessmen, including billionaire political activist George Soros.

Complaints about out-of-state money crop up wherever an important ballot initiative is hotly contested. Homosexual groups protested loudly when the Mormon church poured $500,000 into an Alaska referendum on banning same-sex marriages. Even more closely watched is the ballot initiative in Hawaii, where the state Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that marriage was a constitutional right that must be extended to all couples, even homosexuals. That ruling touched off a scramble on the mainland, where 29 states officially defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman. If the Hawaii measure passes, the state legislature will be authorized to circumvent the Supreme Court by amending the state constitution to ban gay marriage.

Ballot initiatives are increasingly viewed as the only viable means for imposing the will of the people on an activist judiciary. In Colorado, for instance, voters have twice approved term-limits laws-and twice the laws have been struck down as either unconstitutional or coercive. So this year Coloradans will try again, this time with an initiative allowing congressional candidates to sign a voluntary term-limits pledge, then indicate their position on the ballot. Judicial activists have also hampered efforts to secure educational choice. Colorado voters will consider an initiative that would create a tax credit that could reduce the amount of state income taxes owed by parents of school-age children. Money for the tax credits would come from savings that result when students leave the public-school system. Passage of the initiative would be a financial boost for parents sending children to Christian and other private schools; look for an immediate court challenge if successful.

Likewise, in Washington State, opponents of partial-birth abortion have gone back to the drawing board to craft language that will ban the grisly procedure and yet withstand the scrutiny of the courts, which have struck down similar efforts elsewhere. The writers of Initiative 694 argue that Roe vs. Wade legalized only intrauterine abortions; the justices specifically refused to overturn the part of the Texas law that protected "a child in a state of being born," having left the uterus. Win or lose in Washington, the infanticide language of I-694 will likely become a model for pro-life ballot initiatives in 2000 and beyond.


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