July 13, 2020

Direct democracy under scrutiny

Sean Faircloth’s treatise on “referenda” (BDN, Dec. 24) which suggests we “ash can” referendums does not distinguish referendum from direct initiative.

There are three types of referendums: compulsory, optional and direct initiative. The compulsory referendum is statutory. It requires the legislature to submit certain measures to the voters such as constitutional amendments. Optional referendums are these issues that the legislature refers to the voters at their own discretion. The direct initiative is proposed by citizens who have gathered a qualifying number of signatures. The practice is consistent with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

To support his contentions that referendums are futile, refers to the recent forestry compact as an example, cites a random polling of 60 people and suggests that voters are only guessing.

The forestry referendum was essentially initiated and drafted by our governor and other official departments in an effort to countermand or otherwise undermind an effort to ban clear-cutting. That referendum did not pass, many people who voted no, and did so because they admittedly did not understand it. The fault is not with the voters or referendums per se, but with the artificers. Calling the wording of referendums confusing has become a trite cliche of opponents.

The problems with referendums are not idealogical — they’re administrative. While the process has its drawbacks, so does our legislature.

The contention that “big money and special interests buy referenda even more easily than they buy elections” is about the biggest bull in the field. While some campaigns have hired-employed people to circulate petitions for them, petitioners do not pay people for their signatures any more than candidates pay people to vote for them at the polls. However, candidates don’t need to collect nearly as many signatures to get on the ballot as does a citizens’ initiative. I wouldn’t be surprised if they paid for those signatures, or bought their party’s nomination.

Voters are routinely lied to, deceived and betrayed by politicians and elected officials who do sell their votes on certain legislation. Of course, the road to public office is paved with good intentions, or at least the impression thereof.

Democracy is not so much overrated as it is undermined. I am not arguing the fact that our government is a republic augmented by democracy. But, republic, the noun, is only qualified by the adjective, democratic, and the republic is beholden to the Constitution.

Faircloth reduces citizen involvement to that of prolitarian voters to be coddled at election time, then disdained during the legislative session. If legislators were more inclined to opt for the optional referendums we might not find ourselves inundated with citizens’ initiatives.

Direct initiatives are not a fad from California, but a long neglected and overdue manifestation of citizen participation. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, our representatives should work with us [to create] “steady, deliberate and craft public policy,” as it may help make the process a little more efficient. [They shouldn’t] try to discourage or prohibit [our participation]. Besides, any attempt to repeal the articles of the direct initiative will fail.

If direct democracy leads to mob rule, absolute republics lead to elitest totalitarianism as it did in ancient Rome. Mind you, their republic lasted nearly 500 years.

Michael T. Cushman lives in Bangor.

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