More and more American citizens are finding out that something they've heard about citizens initiatives is true: It is an excellent way to get something done that their state legislatures won't do.
The result in recent years has been the growing popularity of the citizens
initiative at the state level. In fact, 1996 saw what the New York Times has called
". . . a possible banner year for this form of end-run governance." But even
though the sheer number is newsworthy, what is even more remarkable is how subtle and
sophisticated this method of direct democracy proves to be.
Many of the issues put on the ballot by citizens in 1996 pitted citizens groups and concerns against what might best be termed big business, big government or entrenched political interest groups. So, there were a variety of contests between animal righters and environmentalists vs. big business and/or hunting and rifle organizations. Sometimes the "big boys" or "old boys" won out. Sometimes not. Sometimes it was the good sense and moderateness of the citizenry.
In the Maine initiative against "clear-cutting" the forests, neither the big lumber interests nor the extreme environmentalists prevailed. Instead, what seemed to win was not the big money against that proposal or the stridency of the environmentalists, but the deliberation of an informed and concerned citizenry.
The citizens favored a middle-of-the-road option for heavier restrictions on clear-cutting. . . not the most far-out positions of a complete ban or no regulation at all. In the 14 states that tried to put some kind of limit on the number to terms a Congressperson could serve, 10 won and 4 lost. In the 5 states where citizens groups tried to put limits on the use of dogs, bait and traps in hunting: 3 were successful and 2 were not.
Citizens groups who might be considered "liberal" and "conservative" mounted initiatives that both overcame and succumbed to deeply embedded political interests in their states.
In California, those who are probably considered liberal (if not libertarian) overthrew the government/ police/ "moral majority" coalition by passing an initiative that allowed marijuana to be "recommended" as a medicine for a wide assortment of pains and ills. The same was true in Arizona where a similar initiative also won, except that in Arizona a physician has to actually "prescribe" the weed/ herb (as well as LSD) for several well-defined diseases.
Those who might be considered more conservative in California, pushed through an initiative that over- rode a long-standing liberal coalition of racial and gender groups that favored "affirmative action."
Those in favor of this initiative convinced 54% of the voters that this was actually a form of "reverse discrimination" and was therefore a "civil rights" amendment. On the other hand, conservatives in Colorado, tried to get citizens to agree to their view that an amendment to their state constitution was needed to affirm the rights of parents to decide on how to raise their children. This went down to a 58-42% defeat.
One other development in 1996 deserves mention, and that is a further growth in the desire for citizens initiatives at the national level and how that is being propelled by the initiative process at the state level.
Back in the 1980s, the high point of the "nuclear freeze" movement came via the state initiative process. At one point, there were 8 successful state initiatives that simultaneously called for a unilateral "freeze" in America's construction of nuclear weapons. All were non-binding in nature. The momentum to this movement was stopped in its tracks by the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 by Soviet jets.
The 1996 election in November, however, saw an increase in the number of like state initiatives on one issue. In this case it was a desire of the citizens of 14 states to set "term limits" of Congressmen. As in the "nuclear freeze" issue, all these initiatives were non- binding. In this case, however, there is a new national organization based in Washington, D.C. called "U.S. Term Limits" who has coordinated this effort and intends to continue expanding these state initiatives and referenda.
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