If you don't like traffic cameras that automatically send you tickets, tune in for the November election results in Bellingham, Wash. Voters there will weigh in on a ballot measure that aims to ban such traffic cameras. Meanwhile, voters in Missoula will decide on a ballot measure that would tell Congress to reduce corporations' power by changing the U.S. Constitution so that corporations no longer get the same rights as people.
Voters in other Western cities will consider local ballot measures on everything from imposing taxes on medical marijuana to ramping up wind and solar power.
This kind of grassroots politics is worth reflection this election season because it's a particularly Western thing. Nationwide, fewer than half the states allow citizens to make laws directly by gathering signatures on petitions and then having statewide votes. But every state in the West allows it, except for New Mexico and Hawaii. In addition, Western cities and counties are more prone to have local ballot measures. That's because Western states more or less took shape in the early 1900s, an era of populism and the time of the Progressive movement. Many people back then were concerned about powerful corporations—railroads, banks, mining and steel—dominating legislatures. So they wrote citizen lawmaking into their state constitutions.
Over the decades, voters' initiatives have racked up many accomplishments. In 1906, Oregon voters ordered railroads to stop bribing government officials with free rail passes. In 1952, Washington voters decided that margarine could be made more attractive with yellow coloring, thereby throwing off the shackles imposed by butter corporations, which had pushed the state legislature to ban yellow margarine. Medical marijuana has been legalized by ballot measures in most Western states. And so on.
Voters use initiatives "to overcome the self-interest" of the legislators they elect, says Paul Jacob, president of Citizens in Charge, a libertarian group based in the Washington, D.C., area that promotes the initiative process. Many legislators are corrupted by their need to raise campaign money and please "the power players—big business and big labor [unions]," Jacob says.
Ever since Californians passed the most famous tax-limit initiative Proposition 13 in 1978, there's been an explosion of initiatives making all kinds of new laws in many states. Some of them seem to be designed to undo previous initiatives. The process can get messy.
In April, The Economist magazine said California's ballot initiatives indicate "the perils of extreme democracy." Californians have approved hundreds of initiatives since 1978, "on subjects [ranging] from education to the regulation of chicken coops," The Economist observed. "This citizen legislature has caused chaos. Many initiatives have either limited taxes or mandated spending, making it even harder to balance the budget. Some are so ill-thought out that they achieve the opposite of their intent...Rather than being the curb on elites that they were supposed to be, ballot initiatives have become a tool of special interests, with...extremists bankrolling laws that are often bewildering in their complexity and obscure in their ramifications."
These problems have triggered increasing calls for reforms. "Over the last 10 years, American voters have decided...more than 1,500 initiatives and referenda (ballot measures created by legislatures)...Unfortunately, direct democracy is often undermined by weak [state] laws" that allow ballot-measure campaigns to be conducted differently than elections for candidates, with secret funding, petition-signature hustling and outright fraud, says the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a D.C.-based reform group. "The initiative process has been hijacked by well-funded, well-messaged campaigns from the right wing"—pushing initiatives against taxes, regulations, gay marriage and abortions—"while progressives have played a weak defense."
So state legislatures naturally try to make it more difficult for voters to pass initiatives. This year, California's legislature passed bills that said that people who circulate petitions can't be paid for each signature, because it encourages a hustling mentality; that any who are paid must wear a badge acknowledging it; and that the top funders behind the petition must be revealed. But Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed all three, calling them a "slippery slope" that could slide citizen democracy off a cliff. Brown did sign a bill that said initiatives can't be scheduled for small-turnout special elections and primaries, where special interests have even more power than in general elections.
Yet legislatures these days suffer partisan gridlock and an inability to solve all kinds of crises. So let's hope citizen democracy, with some reasonable reforms, keeps staggering onward.
"In more than 100 years of ballot initiatives, it's not as if voters haven't made mistakes," says Jacob at Citizens in Charge. "But when you compare initiatives to legislatures, voters [pushing initiatives] do a heckuva better job."
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's senior editor in Bozeman, Montana.