Why Not a Nationwide Direct-Initiative Election?

In checking out the midterm fate of Oregon’s four ballot initiatives —healthcare access, repeal of slavery/ involuntary servitude, banning legislators’ re-election for unexcused absenteeism, banning ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds—I was pleased to see they all passed by at least 51 percent. The largest yes-vote (1,215,366) involved absenteeism, a citizens’ smackdown for legislative walkouts denying a quorum. The biggest no-vote (889,357) defended ammo magazines.

However, the major surprise was the small number of ballot measures because since 1904, as the first state to use them, Oregon has averaged nearly eight per election, out of 446 offered in the last 118 years. Of 27 states permitting initiative measures, the champion is still Oregon, closely followed by California (439 since 1912 ) with seven on the ballot in this year’s midterms.

But the initiative winner this year has to be Kansas because its August 2 primary vote of “no” (543,855 or 58.97% of 922,321 voters wrested an anti-abortion law from the state’s constitution. That also made Kansas the nation’s abortion law pacesetter in the midterms, underpinning victories for the dogged labors of pro-choice activists in five other states: California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont.

In effect, voters overturned the U.S. Supreme Court’s scuttling of the 1973 court’s pro-choice Roe v. Wade decision by leaving the states either to leave or strike it from law books or constitutions. This could well be the eventual undoing of the court’s decision,

Indeed, the trend has started in at least 30 states’ midterms to bypass both unresponsive legislatures, courts, and Congress by using the direct-initiative route to pass laws or constitutional amendments essential to the public. Other successful initiatives were in: Arizona (medical debt), Illinois (union organizing), Massachusetts (tax hike on the wealthy), D.C., Maryland, Nebraska, and Nevada (raising wages), New Mexico (universal child care), and South Dakota (expand Medicaid eligibility).

Most ordinary Americans probably would be overjoyed to vote nationally on issues vital to their well-being. But canvassing teams in all states would still have to generate thousands of signatures. Even back in 1994, 64% of both Democrats and Republicans favored the idea in a poll by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Americans Talk Issues Foundation. Four years later, Gallup pollsters found that 57% supported a Constitutional amendment for a national initiative to let the public participate in making laws.

It’s intriguing to imagine the vote results—try it below—if a national initiative were held today on such issues as:

+ abortion + Medicare for All + legalizing marijuana + gas/food price controls

+ federal fossil-fuel leasing/drilling + Ukraine/ Russian peace talks

+ switching foreign aid to U.S. domestic aid + tax loopholes for the rich

+ repeal Citizens United decision + enforcing anti-trust laws

+ a windfall or excess profits tax + SCOTUS expansion + rent control

+ free public college/trade schools + gerrymandering + $15 minimum wage

+ Congressional term limits + union organizing

Now, crude direct initiatives were part of our nation’s founding. For example, before the Mayflower dropped anchor at Plymouth for 102 settlers in November 1620, 41 men over age 21 signed the Mayflower Compact. Key passage of this 196-word, highly autocratic document was:

“ [We] covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

The Constitution’s framers—the wealthy and influential—even with its opening line of “We the people” obviously were alluding only to themselves. Few would ever have permitted the penniless and/or landless settlers, women or Native Americans to have a say in ruling villages or the Colonies. That attitude is still prevalent among the privileged who consider us, the 99 percent, to be the grasping, ignorant rabble good only for our labor and taxes to support their lifestyles. Colonial leaders may have shouted “Taxation Without Representation” at British King and Parliament, but feared it from the likes of inferiors.

Fortunately, those settling in New England cities and villages were gutsy enough to demand representation via town meetings to decide local issues. They could talk, but not vote. Only property owners could vote because, after all, they paid most of the taxes.

I got a taste of the town meeting’s direct initiatives as a Maine high school teacher. Lists of “warrants” (measures) were mailed within the month to us registered voters for the annual March or special sessions. These were run by our “selectmen” (town officials) and a Moderator , a stickler for Robert’s Rules. This village probably had held town meetings since its 1732 founding, in which my feisty farmer ancestors raised hell on taxes or regulatory issues—as was customary among Yankees—just before each “hands-up” vote. Civility ruled at the meeting’s end. Proponents and opponents either shook hands or nodded at each other.

One fall “special” to solve budget shortfalls was held in the high school cafeteria. Prior to the 7 o’clock start was the traditional baked-bean “suppah” featuring mouth-watering contributions from the village’s best cooks. Beans guaranteed an early departure.

One high point involved the irrepressible new basketball coach who had taken our team to a big win “at state.” He now demanded a $300 raise for what was a monumental deed. Yet an elderly gentleman instantly stood tartly reminded the coach that the rest of us teachers did even worthier deeds all year long and weren’t that greedy. A chorus of “ay-yups,” applause from us, and nodding heads forecast the “NO” vote. The most dramatic moment was the sobbing of the woman who, with a few friends, authored a warrant for $19 worth of Christmas lights’ in the village square. The majority voted “No” after being reminded lighting displays from the bakery and hardware store window should suffice.

The closest thing to a town-meeting voting session seem to be local political party caucuses for a county’s registered voters. It permitted candidate supporters like us Bernie backers to lobby before the vote. We all got out-maneuvered by the Hillary crowd supplying boxes of Krispy-Kreme doughnuts ($4.99 dozen then) for voters.

Perhaps the first national direct initiatives in this country have been conducted largely by major multi-state groups such as unions at contract-renewal elections. But add the millions of direct mailings sent to us for such causes as civil rights, the environment, healthcare, animal protection, national parks, wounded veterans, and children’s special needs.

My mailbox is stuffed daily with “niche-designed” pitches with enticing questionnaires (“check the issues most important to you” or “Please complete and return the enclosed national survey immediately!!!”). Today’s direct mailings include “free gifts” of note cards or sheets of personalized return-address stickers. But always donation choices and a pre-paid business-return envelope. Online political fund pitches do the same except with eye-popping subject lines to guarantee clicks (“YOU can send Trump to prison”). Senders save millions in postage and a financial firm collects the money and skims off their service fee.

So most Americans have already participated in such national direct initiatives.

After the midterms, I began hearing friends tout Oregon’s nearly flawless mail-in ballot system. “Why couldn’t that be the model for a national initiative for three or four of the issues?” Or copy Switzerland’s national direct-initiative elections, the world’s leader of pure democracy. It certainly would bypass the foot-dragging, spineless members of our three branches of government with so many owing allegiance to big-donor commands on issues, not those of us who had elected them to serve our basic needs.

Start here

Now, Switzerland has elections three or four times a year with several direct initiatives on the ballot—recently, immigration, healthcare, and genetically modified foods. At least seven activists must gather 100,000 signatures within 18 months. So if the Swiss can do it, why not us, I was asked.

For starters, Switzerland has only 5,457,940 registered voters to reach. We have 213,768,003. It has 26 cantons within its mountainous 15,285 square miles with a highly efficient postal system serving elections. We have 50 states spread over 3.8 million square miles with mail-in ballots now hobbled by a postmaster-general bent on privatizing that public service . However, after all those Swiss petitioners’ labors in drafting and gathering signatures, the government administrators and parliament still decide which issues will be on the ballot. So much for censorship prior to Swiss vox populi.

Now, historically, many outspoken Americans certainly have tried to establish a national initiative. The Initiative and Referendum Institute say:

“At the Congressional level, between 1895 and 1943, 108 proposals to amend the U.S. Constitution by adding national I&R were submitted. Seven would have created a general I&R, which would have allowed for consideration of any issue. The others created I&R for specific issues only or that had issue-specific prohibitions.”

The first major effort—and perhaps the last—to organize a direct initiative was led by the late Sen. Mike Gravel in 1977. He convinced Senate colleagues Mark Hatfield (D-OR) and James Abourezk (D-SD) to join him in co-sponsoring a bill to add one to the U.S. Constitution: The Voter Initiative Constitutional Amendment of 1977. It died in committee. Perhaps many in Congress rightly suspected such a law would eventually render them impotent.

However, Gravel’s belief in “power-of-the-people” led to the formation in 1988 of the National Initiative, a whipsmart activist group drawn to those ideas and his efforts. In 2002, their pool of creativity, political and legislative knowledge produced two proposals (Democracy Amendment for the Constitution, the Democracy Act as a law) for a trial run via a direct-mailing campaign to residents of Portland, Maine. Based on voting results and input from experts, the proposal was redrafted in 2008 as the National Citizens Initiative for Democracy. Endorsements came from such luminaries as Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, Tom Hayden, Pete Seeger, Harvey Wasserman, Noam Chomsky, Norman Solomon, and Gravel.

Little has been reported about that initiative’s results, but a cumbersome revision of bureaucratic-heavy conditions was delivered in 2012—along with a name change of the group to National Citizens Initiative for Democracy. The initiative now stipulated this Constitutional amendment would make it a Treasury-financed “ independent agency of the U.S. government.” Again, its fate is still unknown.

In the 2020 presidential primaries, billionaire Tom Steyer picked up the baton as a 2020 candidate. He vowed to let voters make laws “directly through a regular national referendum,” according to NBC news. But after spending $158 million in media ads, a poor showing (11.5% ) in the South Carolina primary, he quit the race and turned to support other causes.

Realistically, think of how long it has taken Congress and 38 states to pass a Constitutional amendment. Or the time it takes Congress to pass a single law—unless under conditions akin to passing the Patriot Act.

For the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), it’s been 101 years, now lacking only the U.S. archivist’s certification to become the Constitution’s 28th Amendment. Add former president Harry Truman’s proposal of a universal health law—today’s Medicare-for-All—77 years ago. Much as it has been essential for the 99%, it has yet to become a federal law because of ferocious opposition, chiefly from the health insurance industry and major donors to Congressional members.

Think, too, of a national initiative’s assassins catching up with this strategy on the state level. Inequality contributor Sarah Anderson reported a recent “flurry” of legislative bills around the country attempting to stop the successful trend of state direct initiatives. A recent report noted that: “In some places, state legislatures and activist judiciaries are moving to dismantle initiatives altogether.”

Hundreds of bills—500% between 2017-2021—have been proposed in state houses to undermine or kill the initiative process. One anti-initiative bill replaces a simple majority vote for passage by demanding a higher percentage of votes in low-turnout elections, like midterms. Another tactic involves Republican-controlled legislatures and election leaders demanding significant increases in signatures. A trio of voting-rights advocates just warned Common Dreams’ readers that: “Republicans are expected to push for additional restrictions to the ballot measure process in the coming months.”

Not to mention the usual censorship—intentional or not—of an initiative’s text at the outset when petitioners submit it to a state’s election authorities for ballot approval. Or despite doubling the signature numbers, a measure still fails to make a ballot with limited slots. In Oregon , for example, the title and text must past muster by the Secretary of State’s Election Division, the state’s attorney-general, a “legislative counsel,” the legislature, and the state supreme court. Other states have similar systems. For initiatives that do make the ballot, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that language trickery or deliberately sowing confusion convincing voters to mark “Yes” instead of a “No.”

Yet the national initiative idea seems to linger in its present form, its advocates somehow overlooking an obvious change of direction to achieve what they’ve always sought.

A totally new and promising strategy stems from this year’s midterm findings in a report by Arizona State University researchers Benjamin S. Case and Michael McQuarrie who wrote:

“Ballot initiatives demonstrate the broad popularity of egalitarian [the 99%] policies. State initiatives that win resources, rights, and protections for ordinary people have a success rate higher than 60%. The subset of egalitarian initiatives that we call economically redistributive—initiatives that raise minimum wages, increase low-income access to healthcare, tax the wealthy to fund public services, etc.—win more than 75% of the time. These success rates hold in conservative as well as liberal states…. Out of the 369 state-level citizen initiatives that we cataloged between 2010 and 2020, there were at least 93, or about 25%, that was socially or fiscally egalitarian—that is: initiatives that pushed for resources, rights, and protections for ordinary people.”

Kansas’ vote in a primary supporting constitutional abortion rights proves reactionary initiatives—and/or referendums—can be defeated in a special election for a dozen causes if staged and promoted in each state, say, on the Fourth of July.

This brings us to the major question of why a national direct initiative is needed at all if a coordinated effort in each state could make a national law by using an identical initiative on ballots. After the Kansas primary election, abortion rights were on ballots in several states. Essentially, voters were starting to make national law. So if enough states passed an identical initiative, the people would have succeeded. That’s basically what the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has achieved with their model bills. They’re used nearly word-for-word by many in Congress as their proposed bills.

To do this, a handful of organizers in one place could draft a model initiative’s title and text—preferably in 25 simple words instead of 250—and circulate it around the country

on social media and digital platforms, and contact organizations supporting a specific cause asking them to email a copy to members. It doesn’t require setting up a national organization. One woman put her outrage about Trump’s treatment of women on Facebook. A handful of others agreed and used that technology to bring off the celebrated Woman’s March of 2017 in which 2.6 million demonstrated against him the day after his inauguration.

A coordinated state-by-state requires organizers to follow their state’s initiative regulations in submitting a petition for approvals of title and text. Once that process is completed, all that remains is gathering signatures—again using technology for statewide recruitment—and submitting them for ballot review by election officials. If approved, promotion to voters need not mean raising millions for media ads, but, again, using technology.

The most important factor about this state-by-state effort is that it fits the U.S. Constitution’s Amendment 10 on state’s rights. Court challenges would be difficult to win.

Best of all, if identical initiatives in 40 to 50 states were to become law, the national effect would be achieved. “We the People” could stop waiting for the three branches of the federal government to put laws on the books we desperately need. We would be doing it ourselves and, in effect, creating pure democracy.

Isn’t that what all those advocates vainly pursuing a national direct initiative have sought all these years?

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