Is there such a thing as too much democracy?
Voters in many states are more often deciding major issues that have been dodged by state legislatures. In Maine, three recent questions, decided by popular vote, have come under legislative review this year.
The clash between the Legislature and voters on boosting taxes to pay for education has led to the state shutdown crisis. Voters adopted a three percent surcharge on the highest incomes to pay for an earlier referendum decision, adopted several years ago but ignored by the Legislature. That vote set the amount of state payments to school districts for education, but it was never funded.
Republicans favor reversing the voters’ surcharge legislatively, because they oppose the tax increase. Schools would get less than the voters intended. Their demand to block the tax increase without making up the funding loss has been the underlying cause of the legislative deadlock.
State Supreme Court justices said that ranked-choice voting, adopted by voters, was not constitutional. Should it be repealed or should the Constitution be amended? The Legislature became entangled in how to deal with this complicated mess.
The voters also set a higher minimum wage and applied it to people who usually receive tips. After many servers expressed concern that they might receive less total income, the Legislature repealed that part of the voters’ minimum wage law.
It’s not surprising that the use of direct votes on major issues is becoming more controversial. Some seek to make it more difficult for citizens to place items on the ballot, the way issues like these were initiated.
In a pure or direct democracy, voters themselves make the laws. But the U.S. is a republic, a system of representative democracy in which voters choose people who will make the laws.
About half the states allow for some direct democracy. Voters propose laws, a process known as initiative. Through referendums, they adopt laws or veto laws passed by state legislatures. In almost all states, voters must approve constitutional amendments.
The Maine Legislature usually sends to referendum proposals that have been launched by initiative. Occasionally, it also sends its own bills to voters rather than deciding the issues.
The Legislature can deal with an initiated proposal by sending its own alternative to the voters at the same time. But it then may risk helping passage of an idea it really opposes, so it often avoids offering an alternative.
A complaint about referendums is that they oversimplify complex issues, making them yes-or-no questions. The proposal cannot be amended or improved in the legislative process. With political issues having become so complicated that laws may run hundreds of pages, can they be reduced to “yes” or “no?”
Because legislators may believe voters will hold them responsible for their vote on a controversial issue, their decision may boil down to a simple “yes” or “no.” That’s easier to explain than getting into a bill’s details. So a legislative vote may be much like a referendum.
The frequent use of referendums, as is customary in California and increasing in Maine, may strip them of their special place compared with bills passed by the Legislature.
Questions about the role of legislators themselves may be contributing to the increased use of direct democracy. Should they represent of the views of citizens or are they selected to exercise their own best judgment?
In famous speech in 1774, British legislator Edmund Burke told voters he would not be their representative but would use his “mature judgment” in Parliament. He concluded, “Parliament is not a congress.”
In the U.S., some members of Congress, usually conservatives like Burke’s view. But the U.S. has a congress, not a parliament, with a House of Representatives, which should make the intent clear.
The recent battles over the Affordable Care Act illustrate the point. Some Republicans oppose the expansion of Medicaid, because they dislike the higher taxes on the wealthy used to support the program. Other Republicans, notably representatives from states that have increased Medicaid, don’t want to repeal the expansion.
If state voters oppose the “mature judgment” of their representatives, even when they refrain from action, should they be able to act? And does legislation adopted by the voters rank higher than other laws?
These issues raise the question whether legislatures should give deference to citizen-voted laws, leaving any change to a second popular vote, perhaps in a special election. That could have avoided this year’s unfortunate legislative wars.
Or legislatures could try to be more representative, while showing the “mature judgment” to tackle tough issues.