A gay congressman wants MORE and national ballot initiatives? Seriously?

December 15, 2008

pompeii-2Ross LevinOperation Itch Contributor

With Prop 8 passing in California and various other civil rights-restricting ballot initiatives passing elsewhere, direct democracy has been receiving a strong rejection by the gay community nationwide this year. But someone who could potentially be one of their greatest allies in all of politics not only accepts direct democracy, but is urging its expansion to the rest of the nation (currently, some form of direct democracy, whether it is initiative and referenda or something similar, exists in about half of the states in the US).

The man I am talking about is Jared Polis, the Democratic Congressman-elect from Boulder, Colorado.  Voted into office this November 4th, he is the first openly homosexual non-incumbent elected to Congress.  And yet he still believes that expanding ballot initiatives to the national level would make American government better.  He will, therefore, be introducing a bill into Congress next year that would actually establish a process through which any qualified citizen – most likely that will simply mean a registered voter – will be able to propose a law and then (if it gains enough support beforehand) have the entire voting public vote on it.

Why would a gay man – a man whose community has been injured and insulted at the ballot box for a number of years – support an increased use of initiatives on a scale that is larger than they have ever been used on?  Listen to the man:

I’ve been involved with many ballot initiatives here in Colorado…our system of ballot initiatives not only in Colorado, but in other states doesn’t work perfectly – and that’s important to acknowledge – I believe it’s far better that we have one than we don’t have one…  

There are some policies, that by their very nature, are unlikely to be implemented by an elected legislature.  These are things like campaign finance reform, term limits, types of issues where it affects the members personally…  

We passed here in Colorado a very strong ethics law that banned lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators, we passed campaign finance reform, we passed sunshine laws, which, again, the legislature is not likely to pass.  They require open meetings – the US Congress doesn’t have that.

Polis brings up a few good points.  First, governmental reform would be more likely to occur with a national initiative process supplementing our current legislative process than simply having Congress by itself.  That is, the people who have power (Congress) are less likely to reform themselves and curb their power than the people who are being hurt by their corruption (the general populous).  And Jared Polis is no novice when it comes to reform through initiatives – he was the main sponsor of Colorado’s “Ethics in Government” amendment, a law passed by voters in 2006 which severely limited the power of lobbyists in Colorado state government.

Something that fewer people may have noticed him saying, but something that is equally important, is that  “our system of ballot initiatives not only in Colorado, but in other states doesn’t work perfectly.”  As seen from the infamous Proposition 8, there is much wrong with the current state and local initiative systems.  Just think about this – approximately 30% of voters voted yes on Prop 8, because there was around 60% turnout and the vote was close to 50-50.  That means that much less than 30% of adults, let alone the entire population, of California voted yes on a constitutional amendment, and yet it still passed.  Clearly, there is something wrong with California’s initiative and referenda process (and this is just one example of that).

A national initiative process would be an amazing opportunity for reform of state initiative processes.  It would bring a new form of direct democracy onto the world stage and offer solutions to the problems posed by our current direct democracies.  Also, the most credible current proposal for a direct democratic process in the United States – the National Initiative for Democracy, which can be read at http://www.vote.org – would give states a choice to either keep their current process or adopt a new one based on the National Initiative for Democracy.  In fact, the National Initiative proposes that half of all registered voters would need to vote “yes” for a constitutional amendment on the ballot to pass.  If that rule were in place in California, over 80% of the people who showed up at the polls would have had to cast a “yes” vote on Prop 8 for it to have passed.  And this is just one of several safeguards that would be put in place by the National Initiative.  Another one would be that it is the first initiative process to offer a deliberative committee for every initiative that makes it to the ballot.  One of the main problems with Prop 8 was poor drafting, and this deliberative committee would not only get expert testimony on every initiative, but it would use that testimony to put together a clearer wording for the initiative (that is just one among a few duties it would have).

Jared Polis was actually involved in the creation of the National Initiative for Democracy, even though he currently objects to a few aspects, and therefore will not be introducing that exact bill into Congress next year.  The bill he will be introducing will probably resemble the National Initiative, though, and if you would like to read up on it, I have a few suggestions.


  1.  There is the text of the “Democracy Act” and the “Democracy Amendment” (Which, together, make up the National Initiative for Democracy, along with an ongoing online election at http://www.vote.org ) 
  2.  An annotated version of the Democracy Act and Democracy Amendment, which include explanations and dialogue from the 2002 Democracy Symposium (a conference which was held to work out the kinks in the two documents) 
  3.  Books on the topic of direct democracy, ranging from Mike Gravel’s Citizen Power to the simply titled Direct Democracy (which is available online for free) to For the Many or The Few by John Matsusaka, a law expert who teaches at the University of Southern California. As you can see, ballot initiatives are not something to be easily dismissed as a tool of special interests or the bigoted majority.  They are more complex than that and, according to someone who is both a gay man and a direct democracy expert, much more useful.

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