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Commentary Detail

Direct Democracy: Not All It's Cracked Up to Be
Commentary by: Pete Abel
Aired November 10, 2009

Last week, St. Louis County voters approved a smoking ban and a sales tax increase. Thus concluded another round of direct democracy "voters" unfiltered chance to shape public policy. In a year, we'll have more such opportunities, with 19 petitions vying now for ballot space in November 2010.

I'm not opposed to direct democracy, but I'm not its biggest fan, either. Consider California. Few if any states exercise direct democracy as much, and yet, California is virtually bankrupt. Voters there don't deserve all the blame, but they're certainly not helping matters. Given the chance earlier this year to fix their fiscal mess, they rejected tax increases and spending limits.

While the stakes of direct democracy in Missouri may not be as significant, they're still costly. In an effort to overturn voters' 2006 decision protecting stem cell research, the Missouri Roundtable for Life has attempted 30 ballot initiatives in 22 months. The taxpayer cost of these efforts could amount to tens of thousands of dollars, and that's before we count the cost of the associated lawsuits.

So what's the answer? Consider what the Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters suggested, when I asked him for insight on California's situation. Like me, Walters is a skeptic of direct democracy, calling it "checks and balances on steroids." Instead, he wrote, we should focus on getting more out of our system of representative democracy, empowering "[the people] we elect to [actually] make decisions" and then holding them "strictly accountable for those decisions."

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)

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Pete Abel

Pete Abel

Pete Abel is a public affairs executive. He serves on the boards of Stages St. Louis and the Greater Missouri Chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association. Previously, he served as managing editor of the political blog “The Moderate Voice.” His career started in 1985, first as a freelance reporter and later as a full-time staff writer for the St. Louis Suburban Journals, covering municipal politics and local businesses.

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