April 07, 2020

Is referendum process worth keeping?> Big money has always been the problem

Recently the Bangor Daily News published my column stating that Maine’s referendum process is out-of-control. Since 1993 Mainers voted on more initiated referendums than in the years from 1910 to 1970 combined.

Reaction was strong. Those opposing discrimination against gays wrote supporting my position; some others questioned my patriotism or called me a corporate tool. One low-key letter compared me to Nikita Khruschev. (I did gain weight over the holidays, but that was uncalled for.) A savvy pundit wrote, “(Sean Faircloth) did just about the stupidest thing he could possibly do. He told the truth.” But the truth is so fun! You judge:

Maine is rushing to participate in a California fad: referendum democracy. Bad idea. Mainers had strong opinions about the forestry referendum. One problem: Nobody read it. In a random sample of 60 people, one person — one — had read the proposed law. No surprise. These laws aren’t printed on the ballot! Instead is a tiny explanation that amounts to no explanation at all. The naughty secret about referendums? We voters are guessing! That’s right. We’re not uninformed; referendums leave us in the dark by design.

Read one sentence from the proposed forestry statute: “In this formula, S is the average number of trees of commercial species per acre in the postharvest stand 1 inch to 4.5 inches in diameter at 4.5 feet above the ground as a percentage of 1,000 trees per acre; T is the average residual basal area for trees of commercial species greater than 4.5 inches in diameter at 4.5 feet above the ground as a percentage of the minimum residual basal area requirements for the post harvest stand listed in subparagraph (1) for hardwood, mixed wood, or softwood stands; and R must equal 100 percent or more.”

Still awake? (Yes, that was one sentence). To understand that we must read stacks of silviculture treatises. Not bloody likely. Folks have a choice: we can do a legislator’s job (study statutes) or we can do our own job.

Mainers know referendums are a chaotic media circus. Referendums even have embarrassing sequels! “Clear-cut: Part Two” in a double bill with “Revenge of Gay Discrimination.” Referenda are the voice of slick ad men, not Maine people. Legislative committees research and modify proposals word by word; voters are forced to take the whole referendum — good ideas, lousy drafting — all in up or down vote. The system insults voters.

But wait! Referenda are a cherished gift from Founding Fathers, right? Wrong. Enter James Madison. Thomas Jefferson, the tall ladies man, gets great press, but it was stumpy little Madison who created America’s Constitution. Madison’s Constitution is the most holy document designed by human hand, but it is not a blueprint for democracy. Madison thought direct popular rule — democracy — leads to mob rule and bad law.

Madison designed a Democratic-Republic. Democratic is the adjective, Republic the noun. Madison believed we should democratically elect representatives; it is a representative’s job to study, deliberate, and craft public policy. No soldiers fought to protect referendums. America’s Constitution has no referendum provision. Turn-of-the-century referendum laws were rarely used until this California fad began in the 1970s. Then big money special interests licked their chops.

Big Money in politics was — is — the problem. A referendum to remedy that disgrace was warranted (we could not trust incumbents to address it). I supported the successful, though flawed, Clean Elections Initiative. Meanwhile, referendums got highjacked by the money boys. Large corporations love nothing better than referendum democracy.

Big money special interests buy referendums even more easily than they buy elections. California’s ballot is regularly stuffed with more than 10 referendums. Special interests pay for petition signatures, then buy laws with slippery 30-second ads. Judges are left to untangle the mishmash of conflicting laws. California’s referendums system has less intellectual depth than Wheel-of-Fortune (at least Wheel-of-Fortune isn’t rigged and the commercials are less obnoxious).

In all the 1960s Mainers voted on zero initiated referendums. Is our referendum system today as wacky as California’s? No, but we’re on our way. Today seventeen petitions (17!) are circulating for ballot placement. That doesn’t count hot potatoes legislators may (sometimes must) lay on us. When we sign petitions to put an issue on the ballot, we spend taxpayer money — even if the issue doesn’t get on the ballot! The State must count and verify all petitions (frivolous ones too). So must all towns. Today petition circulators spend tax dollars so referendums such as “Legalize Marijuana” and “Legalize Slot Machines” can be ballot certified.

Wise laws do not spring from the latest poll result. We admire Dr. Martin Luther King because of his reasoned, principled argument for national laws. He urged politicians to take risks for justice. When John F. Kennedy introduced his Civil Rights Bill, his poll ratings dropped. The now forgotten Texas Sen. Ralph Yarborough, defying popular opinion, supported civil rights. Dr. King, allying with principled politicians, achieved justice, despite, not because of, popular opinion. But Dr. King was never “educated” by ad men about viewer reaction to TV spots. In the brave new world of referendums, the test is polls, not principles.

Rejuvenate the Republic Madison designed. Whenever a politician intones, “That’s an important issue. Let the voters decide.” Say this, “If you don’t have the guts to tackle tough issues yourself, you don’t deserve the job.” When someone asks you to sign a petition placing any proposal on the ballot (even one you agree with), politely tell them to ask a legislator (just one of 186!) to introduce it as a bill. Better to decide issues Madison’s way than Madison Avenue’s way.

True, most politicians are walking poll results. Harry Truman said, show me a politician who keeps an 80 percent approval rating long and I’ll show you a politician who isn’t doing his job. Harry Truman was a rare breed, but principled leaders are our best hope. If you want Big Money running the country, stick with referendums. The referendums system values perception over reality, polls over principles, and money over thought.

Sean Faircloth lives in Bangor.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

comments for this post are closed

You may also like