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Voter initiative system often leads to minority rule

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Regardless of one’s personal stance on issues like abortion and a minimum wage, Albuquerque’s recent enthusiasm for government by plebiscite brings with it dangers the nation’s founders understood well and which have rendered California, in the words of The Economist, ungovernable.

As my colleague Dan McKay reported last month, our City Charter has provided the tools of direct democracy for years, in the form of what the charter calls “direct legislation by voter initiative.” It’s just that until last year no one used those tools.

That year, activist groups gathered enough signatures on a petition to put a measure raising the city’s minimum wage on the November ballot. Labor unions used the initiative process this year to force a special election to modify requirements for runoff elections for city offices. Another group of activists is trying to get an initiative onto the October ballot to limit abortions after 20 weeks.

None of the local initiatives came to Albuquerque’s ballot out of some sort of groundswell of public opinion. They were organized efforts managed by people with an agenda.

Therein lies one of the major criticisms of direct democracy as practiced in our time. These initiatives can be less an expression of the public’s will than they are a manifestation of the same old political machinery that gives us a nightly overdose of slanderous advertising during the height of the election season.

California’s nonstop plebiscites have spawned a cottage industry of professional signature gatherers, robo-call makers and political marketing specialists that generates billings from any client with a cause and a checkbook.

Once these initiatives make it to the city ballot, the depressingly small number of voters who show up at the polls (26 percent of registered voters in the last mayoral election) means a motivated splinter group can impose its agenda on the majority of the citizenry by rallying a relatively small number of troops.

That can be a much easier task than navigating a proposed ordinance through an informed, skeptical and transparent city council, then securing the signature of a mayor whose job it is to represent the entire city.

James Madison, in The Federalist No. 10 published in 1787, called this kind of thing “the violence of faction” and argued that the cure is a republican form of government of the type we both enjoy and endure today. What Madison called pure democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

It must be said: Shame on us. If we can’t get motivated even to vote in a city election, we are going to have to live with the occasional faction-imposed ordinance, the turbulence and the contention.

But before we resign ourselves to that, it pays to see how California has fared since Howard Jarvis collected signatures to put Proposition 13 on the ballot in 1978.

There was a good case to be made for and against Proposition 13, but its effect, when combined with dozens of other ballot initiatives enacted over the years, has been to guarantee that the people’s elected officials in the California Legislature have almost no control whatsoever over the state’s budget.

According to James Fishkin of Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy, it takes a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers to approve new taxes. Whichever party is in the minority (currently the Republicans) has virtually unlimited veto power over any budget the elected majority might offer.

Ballot initiatives require the legislature to commit huge pieces of state revenues to specific purposes – 40 percent of the general fund, for example, must go to education – so lawmakers have very little latitude to adjust spending to meet current revenue.

Voters enacted a three-strikes law to keep more felons in jail longer, which has drastically driven up the inmate population and, coupled with extremely generous retirement packages, the cost of the corrections department has reached $6 billion. Voters dictate, through ballot initiatives, what infrastructure projects to pursue. Ballot initiatives imposed terms limits, which Fishkin said means there are no elected officials with enough experience or knowledge to run the government properly. Only another popular vote can repeal these measures, so they remain in place even when they are shown to be damaging.

Given the choice between too much democracy and not enough, the sane choice has to be for too much democracy, but the founders offered a compromise that makes sense: Hire people through the ballot box and let them do their jobs, but with the oversight that open meetings, a free press, and the right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances allows.

If republican government isn’t working, it’s not the politicians who aren’t doing their jobs. We the people are not doing ours.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.