The election of November, 2012 will determine the next president of the United States, the next governor of Missouri and countless other races. It could also decide dozens of proposals whose supporters are already gathering signatures in order to put them on the statewide ballot.
This wave of ballot initiatives reflects the tension between those who believe in a representative form of government, as envisioned by James Madison, and those who favor a more direct democracy, like that in Switzerland. A good illustration of this tension is a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a three-fourths majority in each chamber of the Missouri legislature in order to overturn a measure approved by voters.
Supporters of the amendment say it’s necessary to prevent the legislature from overriding the will of the people as expressed through popular elections. Their argument assumes both that elections are conducted fairly and that all citizens legally entitled to vote are able to do so. Not everyone would agree that such is the case, including Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who has denounced the vote by the Missouri legislature to require voters to have a photo ID.
Noting that as many as 25 percent of African-Americans lack photo IDs, Lewis called the requirement a poll tax by another name. If Lewis is correct, perhaps he and his colleagues in Congress need to rethink what federal law requires in order to work legally in the United States. These ID requirements go way beyond what’s needed to vote legally anywhere in the country. If requiring a photo ID prevents African-Americans from voting, does doing so also make it harder for them to find employment?
Even if the barriers to voting aren’t unreasonably high, the process of putting a measure on the ballot can be both costly and difficult. Supporters of ballot initiatives often resort to paying others to collect the requisite number of signatures. They frequently have to hire teams of lawyers to determine the wording submitted to voters. In other words, the measures on which Missouri voters are able to vote tend to be those supported by well-funded backers.
There is also the even more basic question: Do the voters really understand what they’re voting on? Backers of the amendment would argue that the will and wisdom of Missouri voters were clearly demonstrated when they voted to regulate dog breeding operations and against allowing concealed weapons. Some of these same backers might be less complimentary about the same electorate’s overwhelming rejections of gay marriage and President Obama’s health care plan.
Every word in the United States Constitution was thoroughly debated prior to being adopted. By contrast, very few Missourians had read the Hancock Amendment before adding it to our state constitution in 1980 and even fewer understood it. There are those who would say that not even Mel Hancock, who got credit for drafting the amendment, understood what was in it.
Finally, there’s the question of voter turnout. Legislative bodies have quorum requirements. Ballot initiatives do not. Last summer the statewide turnout in the August primary election was less than 23 percent. In St. Louis the turnout was under 14 percent. Does a majority vote in an election with such low turnout really represent the will of the people?
Direct democracy makes sense when citizens have access to the polls; when they are informed about the issues on which they’re voting; when money doesn’t determine what issues are on the ballot or how they’re worded; and when voter turnout is significant. In the real world, however, direct democracy can be just as flawed as representative government.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.