Paul Jacob

Many amongst our elite opinion leaders find government “Of the people” so passé. Yes, they’re all for government for the people, and plenty of it: Nanny-state government run by them. But government “by the people?” Egads, no.

Hardly a week goes by without legislators or big lobbyists in one state or another suggesting that the entire voter initiative process be scrapped. Or proposing a myriad of ways to cripple initiative efforts . . . that is, when total destruction isn’t politically viable.

This week’s anti-democratic drumbeater is State Senator Chuck Gross, a Republican representing St. Charles, Missouri. He wrote an op-ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch bemoaning “uninformed voters” and their right to initiate laws and constitutional amendments that might impinge on the carte blanche enjoyed by politicians.

“The initiative petition process in Missouri is a runaway car without a brake,” wrote the state senator. “It’s not an accident waiting to happen; it’s a car that regularly crashes.”

But, puzzlingly, Sen. Gross doesn’t bother to mention a single vote by Missourians that was mistaken or misguided. Not a single one.

Sure, voters sometimes do regret a vote. As was the case recently in Florida, where citizens went back via the initiative process to reverse their decision to build an inter-city bullet train. But voters remain very satisfied with the policy changes made by initiative.

I could quote studies, but that would be pointless, for whether the people, Mr. Gross’s customers, happen to like the laws they’ve passed by initiative doesn’t impress Gross much. Gross’s beef? Politicians don’t control the process.

“No informed debate and fiscal consideration by elected representatives takes place,” he argues, “no matter how serious the consequences these measures may have if uninformed voters pass them into law.”

Gross completely ignores the active debate that goes on in the public about initiatives. But then our debates are “uninformed.”

There’s a theme here: Without career politicians, life itself would be impossible. Or so we’re told . . . by career politicians.

The good senator is willing to offer us poor unwashed masses some advice, at least those in the Show-Me state:

Missourians would be wise to consider changing the margin now required for passage of these initiatives from a simple majority to a two-thirds super majority. Perhaps that would help dissuade special interests from using these petition drives and initiatives for their own narrow purposes.

Sounds like the establishment folks figure they can muster just a third of the vote. Thus, their view of democracy? If they only lose two-to-one, they should still rule over citizens any way they like.

But what’s this blather about “special interests”?

The most powerful special interests despise the initiative process and will assist politicians in trashing it. The special interest lobbies have power in the dim hallways and backrooms of the capitol, where they plead for special treatment at taxpayers’ expense. This dynamic means that special interests don’t fare nearly so well making their case to taxpayers directly.

Moreover, with all the obvious, and even admitted, special-interest influence in our legislatures, it is a joke to hype fears of such influence in the voter initiative process. Wherein voters can simply vote their interests. Something their representatives have such difficulty doing.

What is being advocated by Senator Gross is hardly unique. Political insiders in other states also advocate regulating voter initiatives in order to make it nearly impossible for voters to successfully check their wayward political servants. The message seems clear: Don’t let the people vote.

If the voters are so uninformed on issues that affect them, one wonders how they are deemed smart enough to know which blow-dried candidate is lying. (Answer? Both.)

Raising the bar to make citizen initiatives more difficult impacts the powerful groups the least. They can spend to overcome such hurdles. It’s the grassroots groups that get cut out.

And that’s no accident.

With so much of politics locked up by powerful career politicians and special interests, the voter initiative process is the one area they just can’t quite control. Voters are liable to think up all manners of reforms — from term limits to state spending caps. And no matter how much special interests spend, voters manage to enact critical reforms.

With government as big as Goliath, the initiative hands David a slingshot.

So, every year, as legislatures come back into session and lobbyists and politicians renew their conversations, we see efforts to gut the voter initiative process.

Perhaps we always will. There is a divide between those who seek to rule, in the name of the people, and those who wish to see the people rule, at least within the strict limits of the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson noticed this long ago:

Men by their makeup are naturally divided into two camps: those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of higher classes; and those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them the safest and most honest, if not always the wisest repository of the public interest. These two camps exist in every country, and wherever men are free to think, speak, and write, they will identify themselves.

Hats off to you, Mr. Gross, for your clarity in this argument.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.