Politicians Seize the Initiative — and Strangle It

by John Fund

Politicians always claim to support democracy, but they love to come up with creative ways to limit the influence of those pesky voters. Now members of the political class in several states are going after the most powerful tool voters have: direct democracy.

Twenty-four states currently allow voters to write their own laws through the initiative process, sidestepping gridlocked legislatures. Conservative voters have used the tool to impose term limits and curb racial quotas. At the same time, liberals have used initiatives to pass minimum-wage laws and tobacco taxes that were often blocked by legislatures where lobbyists held sway.

Almost all of the other states allow citizens to collect signatures to overturn either constitutional amendments or statutes passed by their legislatures.

It’s just such citizen democracy that has irked the establishment — so in several placees, the political class is trying to rein it in.

In Idaho, where there were three referenda on the November ballot that successfully repealed the GOP legislature’s education-reform bills, there is now a bill to make the initiative process significantly more difficult. Under the bill, proponents would not only have to qualify a statewide initiative or referendum with petitions statewide but also with petitions in 22 of 35 legislative districts.

But the real squeeze is talking place in Maryland. Democrats who dominate the state legislature became irked last year when Republicans tapped the Internet to gather enough signatures to challenge three high-profile measures passed by the legislature. The Washington Post reported:

It was the first time in 20 years that any law had been successfully petitioned to a public vote, and the GOP lawmakers hoped that the will of the people would overturn that of the legislature. But the euphoria was short lived: On Election Day, voters affirmed all three measures, on same-sex marriage, illegal immigrant tuition breaks and congressional redistricting.

Despite the fact all the initiatives failed, the empire is now striking back anyway. A flurry of bills are seeking to curb the power to collect signatures in Maryland, including one that would effectively triple the number of signatures required to force a public vote. Other measures would outlaw paid petition-gathers and require people to have someone else serve as a witness when they sign a petition. Under current law and a court ruling from last year, individuals are able to serve as their own witnesses.

State senator Jamie Raskin wants to change all that. “If people are their own witness, how do you guarantee against fraud?” he asked. For a state with a long history of voter fraud and one of the sloppiest election codes in the country, his sudden concern about political fraud is remarkable. Indeed, at the same time liberal legislators are busy worrying about petition fraud over voter-inspired referendums, they are ignoring warnings that the same-day voter-registration measure they are planning to pass will dramatically increase the potential for fraud at the polls. 

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