Monday, June 14, 2010

Democracy or Disease?

Democracy or Disease?

This is the title of an essay by Aaron Renn, the author of the Urbanophile blog (, although this essay appears instead on New Geography and you can find it here:

The essay is about how California-style government through referendum and initiative has spread to other states, especially in the Midwest. Mr. Renn sees this as a problem. For example, in California the combination of tax cuts and required spending passed by the voters has made it almost impossible for the state to pass a workable budget. One of the most amazing misuses of this system took place in Ohio:

The last and most incredible example is Ohio, where a group of developers wanted to open casinos. Led by Rock Ventures, the investment vehicle of Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert of Detroit, the group spent $47 million to draft, put on the ballot, and pass a constitutional amendment permitting casino gambling in Ohio. But this initiative did much, much more than that. It only permitted casinos on four specific properties — properties controlled by the referendum backers — and thus granted them exclusive rights to open casinos. It exempted their casinos from zoning or most other types of local control, authorized them to operate 24 hours a day, and specified a very low license fee of only $50 million per casino to the state. It also permitted them not only to run any game currently allowed by any surrounding state, but also any game those states might approve in the future. It's undoubtedly one of the most incredible constitutional amendments in the history of the United States.

This strikes me as a terrible idea for the State of Ohio (but a very good one for the people who sponsored the referendum). I’m sure of us all feel that voters should have the final say in how we are governed, but there seems to be a problem with a too convenient system of initiative and referendum.

I know we should all be educated on everything we vote on, but I can’t quit my job to study the candidates and issues full time. I normally know what’s going on in the big races (President, Governor, Senator, Mayor and congressional candidates), but it’s hard to keep up with all the amendments to the Texas constitution, the races for judge (here in Texas we vote on all judges—sometimes as many as thirty races in Dallas County), all the local contests (County Clerk, Constable, City Auditor, etc.). Then we have multiple elections, Federal, State, City and School Board. That’s made more complicated by the fact that while I live in the City of Dallas, I also reside in the Richardson School District—and my kids (who went to private schools anyway) are long since grown. When am I going to find time to keep up with Richardson Schools?

By the way, there is also a Dallas County School Board, which is entirely separate from the Dallas Independent School District School Board. I lived here for a decade before I finally figured out that the job of the Dallas County School Board was mostly to run the school buses.

I read the local newspaper every day; follow the national news; check out a half dozen blogs and most of the local commentary on the web. It’s not that I’m not trying, but there are too many issues and too many candidates for me to follow them all.

In short, I agree with the Urbanophile that we’ve got to find a way to restrict initiative and referendum (and probably all votes) to the kinds of things that are important enough for most of the voters to spend their time learning about. At the same time, I think the voters ought to have the right to step in directly to set things right when necessary. I wish we had initiative and referendum in Texas.

There has to be some middle ground between no right for voters to directly speak on important issues and the opportunity for every rich person with a cause or a scheme to make voters decide whether it’s a good idea.

Maybe initiatives and referenda ought to be limited—perhaps to the three or five issues that have the highest number of signatures on their petition. Maybe there is a better idea out there. I do know that while I want my vote to count, I don’t want to vote on what I don’t understand.

John Greenan

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