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Fixing American Democracy: Nationwide Citizen Initiative Petitions & Referenda

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Fixing American Democracy: Nationwide Citizen Initiative Petitions & Referenda

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Part 6 of a six-part series. See Part 1: The Right to Vote For Everyone, Part 2: Increase the House, Part 3: Paper Trail Vote by Mail, Part 4: Shorten the Election Season, and Part 5: Federal Term Limits.

I’ve saved the best for last, but perhaps it is the part that should be tackled first. Because the chances of our elected officials defining our right to vote as a multiple choice, increasing the size of the House and Electoral College, establishing nationwide vote-by-mail, campaigning only after Labor Day, and voting to term-limit themselves seems pretty slim, it would have to be up to the people to force these changes.

In almost half the states, the people can. Why should they have greater rights of self-determination than the rest of the country?

Step Six: Nationwide Citizen Initiative Petitions & Referenda

My home state of Oregon was the first to grant the people the right to enact their own laws by petition.

Homework: Statewide Initiatives & Referenda at iandrinstitute.org and ncsl.org.

How it could happen: Legislatures in the 26 states without initiative power enact constitutional amendments enabling the process.

Why it will not happen: See the rest of this article for the things that initiative power could produce that corporate donors to Congresspersons would not want voted on.

The power of the people in a state to craft their own laws via initiative can be used for good (medical marijuana, assisted suicide) or evil (anti-gay marriage, crippling anti-tax codes). But undeniably, that power leads to more radical change more often than we find in the states dependent on their politicians to make laws.

When overwhelming majorities of citizens want laws enforcing net neutrality, requiring universal background checks for gun sales, legalizing marijuana, providing a path to citizenship for kids of undocumented immigrants, and maintaining the legal availability of abortion, yet politicians block or actively subvert those causes, there must be another way for the people’s will to be done.

It’s not the terrifying “mob rule” scenario that anti-initiative forces claim. In states like Idaho and Missouri, the legislatures have crafted signature gathering requirements that demand a certain threshold from every region of the state, so the voices of rural citizens aren’t drowned by urban ones.

Even on the liberal West Coast, citizen initiatives to legalize marijuana were later tempered by the regulations crafted by the legislature. In some cases, policies the people voted for were drastically changed.

The mere threat of a progressive initiative, such as the medical marijuana one that had been planned for Ohio, can spur a recalcitrant legislature to negotiate compromise legislation that at least moved the issue forward.

Critics complain that initiative power means big money special interests can buy their way into making the laws. I fail to see how that is any different than how Congress works now. Except that with citizen initiatives, the people have to be convinced with dollars instead of congresspersons being bought with dollars.

Of course, there is always the backstop of the Constitution to prevent a popular initiative, like banning gay marriage circa 2006, from violating people’s rights. The judiciary is always important to temper the will of an unwise majority that might legalize school prayer or enable discrimination. Plus, if there are no longer lifetime appointments to the federal bench (see Step Five), there will be an evolution of thought there that keeps better pace with society’s evolution.

In no way do I advocate for a national petitioning system, though; it is a good thing that our national constitution is difficult to amend. If we’ve passed my previous five suggestions into law, the result should be a government more responsive to the people, but not too responsive.

That’s it – six simple, but not easy, ways to change American Democracy for the better. Now, just give me absolute power to make these changes. I promise I’ll surrender the power after it’s all done. Really.


P.S. We also need to fix gerrymandering. Perhaps an amendment that defines the boundaries of a district (of 50,000, because of Article the First as per Step Two) such that it is comprised of a voting population that is no further than two standard deviations in important demographic categories, like party registration, age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc., from the demographics of a perfect circle of equal area to the district whose center is located at the geographic center of the district?

I didn’t write this one up as a Step Seven because the policy and the math are too much for me, but I’m sure somebody with degrees has figured this one out, too.

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