Initiative, referendum: An excess of democracy?

Posted Oct. 19, 2009, at 8:02 p.m.

Advocates of the initiative and referendum reforms adopted by the residents and woven into the fabric of the state constitution in 1909, viewed them as a political means of “returning power to the people” by circumventing the Legislature, its committee structure, and the corporate wealth and political machines which they alleged dominated both.

Expectations ran high among the new “citizen lawmakers” that direct democracy would right a flawed political system needing only a few political prescriptions such as the curative powers offered by the political reforms. With one sweep, the initiative and referendum, would neutralize the abuse of private power and improve the working and living conditions of Maine residents, especially for the working classes and farmers. An instant and peaceful political revolution from plutocracy to democracy would occur at all levels of government, the conflict between the people’s will and the interests would fade, citizen participation in the political process would be enhanced, the ends of justice served, and the authentic voice of the community restored.

Opponents argued that the reforms would lead to confusion and instability and the general populace would fail to take sufficient interest in the new opportunity to exercise their sovereignty to make them a success. Only a small contingent of voters, they claimed, would cast votes, thus giving the false impression that the majority of residents had expressed their sentiments and convictions on a given issue. They feared that a passionate multitude, untutored in the intricacies of the legislative process and swayed by unprincipled leaders to think in terms of their own interest, might threaten the wealth, power, status, and general well-being of others.

They admonished that the people of Maine may be carried off their feet and that revolution may follow and that direct democracy had something to do with Socialism. A glimpse of the “danger” of the new political reforms was offered by the actions of Maine Sen. Eugene Hale who utilized the tax-supported U.S. mail system to reproduce a speech made by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts before the Central Labor Union of Boston in Faneuil Hall. Lodge declared that direct legislation was contrary to the republican form of government and subversive of the welfare of the nation and referred to it as mob rule.

The reforms seemed to have been inspired largely by economic issues, i.e., “taking from a few the power to control law making bodies for their own personal profit.” While the State Referendum League, created in 1905 to secure “the peoples right to a direct vote on questions of public policy” drew upon a mosaic of reformers, it was composed of nearly all union men frustrated by ought not to pass reports by various committees which addressed labor related issues. The historical record indicates, however, that the reforms have been applied to a myriad of political issues far removed from class-based considerations.

Maine joined the rebirth of direct democracy during the 1970s and ’80s as political cauldrons across the land were seething with initiatives and referendums. That surge brought with it critics who sought to hobble the “excesses” of democracy and the departure from the nation’s genuine republican political heritage of represen-tative government.

Criticism crested in Maine in 2001 when numerous “anti-citizens’ initiative” bills were introduced and defeated. Among them were measures that increased the number of signatures required to have a referendum, required that a certain percentage of initiative signatures originate from all counties, banned referendum petitioners from polling places, prohibited the collection of signatures on election day, and required referendums that failed to remain dormant for another six years. The Coalition to Protect the Referendum, composed of more than 70 state groups and individuals, a veritable mix of ideological interests including environmentalists, labor, re-ligious conservatives and others united in the common purpose of preserving direct democracy, held the fort.

Yes, issues are complex. Thousands of scientific articles are written each day that cover every aspect of life. This advance of scientific knowledge and expertise required to understand the complexity of life tend to reinforce traditional elitist suspicions of the egalitarian view that “one man’s opinion is as good as another.”

And yes, national special interest groups and professional organizers with sophisticated campaign strategies have hitched their wagons to local campaigns of direct democracy. Money and all that it makes possible has never faded from the scene, despite the hope of the original disciples of reform that its corrosive effects on political life and democracy would be banished.

Yes, also, to the expectation of renewed efforts to hobble the initiative and referendum or to strip them from the constitution altogether and thus disengage citizens entirely from the process of grass-roots democracy. But rather than muffle the voices of voters and scuttle the town hall writ large, it may be best for the state to give priority to promoting resident education of the issues, entertain financial controls over the process itself, and for residents to endorse referendum Question 7 this year, which will aid in improving the process by protecting it against abuse: “Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to increase the amount of time that local officials have to certify the signatures on direct initiatives petitions?”

Charles A. Scontras is a historian and research associate at the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine.

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