Winston Churchill once famously quipped that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Indeed, our democratic institutions aren’t perfect, and the recent debates regarding how to deal with the unintended consequences of Amendment 41 make the perils of democracy all too evident.
Still, in our imperfect political system, referenda — the opportunity for the voting public to say “Yea” or “Nay” to specific items of legislation — are an important tool through which citizens make their wills known.
Most legislation comes through our representatives in the legislature, elected every two years. But how clear a message are we sending when we vote for members of the State House or State Senate? In a country where political opinions vary widely, not only between but within political parties, a vote for your preferred party isn’t necessarily a vote for all the policies you prefer.
What if you’re a Republican who supports gay marriage, or a Democrat who supports school vouchers? Like most of us, if you aren’t in 100 percent agreement with the candidate you vote for, then your vote sends a message in favor of policies you oppose. Election of representatives sends only vague signals about what policies voters really prefer.
In contrast with the blunt instrument of electing representatives, referenda and initiatives are sharp, focused tools, allowing citizens to clearly and directly articulate their views on specific policy proposals. Referenda give voters a chance to buck partisan divides and bypass the party leaders who often control the legislative agenda.
Referenda also give voters the opportunity to bring forward issues that image-conscious politicians rather wouldn’t touch. Last year, for instance, Colorado voters got to consider marijuana policy with
Amendment 44 and domestic partnerships with Referendum I – two measures that the Democratic and Republican leadership generally regard as political suicide to even debate.
Referenda are good for our democratic system, too: When voters are faced with specific policy proposals, they must think critically and weigh the pros and cons – and they do so in an arena separate from unproductive drama or personal attacks and partisan mudslinging. The real debate that we get with referenda is good for our democracy.
Now, it’s true, referenda aren’t totally free from partisanship, grandstanding and exaggeration. However, the average referendum has to overcome much higher hurdles and undergo greater scrutiny than your average piece of legislation.
While ordinary legislation takes only a majority vote of the Colorado legislature, a referred measure takes a supermajority legislative vote to make it to the ballot, and a citizen-initiated measure takes tens of thousands of signatures, often collected through countless hours of citizen effort.
Referenda are also more transparent: A bill can pass the Colorado
Legislature with only a couple of hours of committee debate by a handful of legislators. Even the most mundane referendum, on the other hand, is scrutinized by tens of thousands of citizens, government watchdogs and dozens of media outlets.
Now, the process isn’t perfect. The current system makes it just as easy to amend the state constitution as it does to adjust statutes.
That should change; statutory measures should be made easier in order to encourage amendment of the constitution only when truly necessary.
If that had been the case, Amendment 41 would likely have been easier for the legislature to clarify.
The notion that citizens can debate and vote on legislation that their fellow citizens want to see discussed, without the permission of partisan lawmakers, is a natural extension of the democratic ideal that governments derive their power from and should be responsive to the will of the people. For that reason above all, the referendum process deserves to be preserved and protected.
Seth Anthony is a chemistry graduate student. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to email@example.com.