Referenda are a product of political cowardice. Legislators shouldn't be asking voters to do their job for them. They are paid, usually decent salaries, to consider complex issues and vote on them. Because they devote all their time to government, they are supposed to understand all the subtleties and complexities of a proposal. By passing the buck to voters in the form of a referendum, they're asking you to do their job for them.
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While all this voting may sound like democracy, it actually undermines the entire point of our representative government. America is a democratic republic. If representatives don't do what voters ask, they get booted out of office. But all these referenda (and their cousin, the voter initiative), while they seem like the very heart of populism, are really a way of bypassing the splendid democracy our founding fathers created.
The founders' intent gets short-circuited in the voting booth in two ways. One is through a referendum, where an oftentimes controversial measure, like a tax increase or financing for a new football stadium (or, in many cases, both), is put on the ballot by the state legislature. The second is an initiative sponsored by voters themselves, courtesy of a grassroots movement that has gathered enough signatures to land the item on the ballot.
Far too often, these supposedly populist voter initiatives are actually pushed by a particular special interest group. Wealthy individuals or issue advocacy organizations start a "grassroots" movement for their pet cause, dumping tons of money into the bottomless pit of campaigning. As initiatives have taken on new prominence, a cottage industry of campaign consultants, advertising firms and signature gathering groups has arisen. In 1998, California voters saw the most expensive initiative fight ever over a proposal to allow casinos on Indian reservations. Indian groups spent a lot of money pushing the idea, while Las Vegas casinos (which draw a lot of Californians) lobbied hard against it. Combined, they spent over $100 million.
When it comes to initiatives, Western states lead the way. California, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, North Dakota and Washington are responsible for 60 percent of ballot initiatives that have appeared over the last decade. The trend seems to be caused by a combination of the West's willingness to experiment and a high concentration of libertarians who distrust elected officials. In the past decade, Oregon voters have seen an average of 12 initiatives on each ballot they've cast.
All those proposals can muddy the legislative waters. Case in point: In 1998, a wealthy, connected Republican named Bill Sizemore ran for Oregon governor. He only got 30% of the vote, the lowest percentage for a major party candidate in the state in years. Despite the voters' rejection, Sizemore was back on the ballot in 2000. Not as a candidate, but in the form of six ballot proposals he sponsored. He couldn't get elected, but he could use his considerable wealth and political connections to get his agenda considered.
That's free speech in action. But it's not always beneficial. Not all policy decisions should be fought over in the public arena. The nature of the fight is different; instead of professional politicians debating, voters are deluged by constant and contradictory campaign ads until they're not sure if a proposal is common sense or the work of the devil. And in government, politicians can make compromises. Voters only get to say yes or no on ballot initiatives.
Of course, even when voters decide on a proposal, that doesn't mean the government doesn't have a role. Elected officials have to execute what the voters enact, and in some instances the voters' message is unclear: in recent years voters in Colorado passed a ballot initiative forcing the state government to adequately fund education, but they also passed a proposal restricting the state's ability to raise taxes. So the state had to increase school funding but wasn't allowed to raise money to pay for it, and the government tied itself into a fiscal straitjacket.
Voters need to let politicians do their jobs. Let them work for you. Sure, they don't always perform. But if you don't like the job they're doing, don't worry: you can always fire them.