Facing Gridlock

Ballot Drop Box, 28 December 2016, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Author: Paul Sableman.

By Dr. Neil Wollman

Note from Kathie MM:  This is a lightly edited version of an article by Dr. Wollman originally published by National Issues Forums in 2013—a message as important as ever in 2018.

In the face of recent partisan government gridlocks, let’s consider a new way to make some policy decisions. What if citizens voted not only for candidates in presidential elections, but also for policies directly affecting their own welfare—including budget priorities? A strong, definitive public voice on contentious issues could reduce government gridlock and perhaps even avert a government shutdown!

One advantage of public referenda or initiatives would be giving legislators political cover to cross party lines and get government working. Who knows, maybe legislators would start working together.  But beyond this, voter turn-out could increase and some measure of faith in government might be restored as people feel their voices being heard. Candidates for political office would be pushed to discuss policies that were up for a vote. Once elected, they would be more beholden to the public’s interests and less able to claim a policy mandate simply because they won.

In Colorado, ballot initiatives are now common practice , and they energize and engage the voting public. Over more than 20 years, Colorado citizens have supported measures like a strong ban on gifts from lobbyists to politicians, the first renewable energy mandate, campaign finance reform, increased K-12 funding, and term limits.

Many details must be addressed if direct democracy is to be implemented on a national level. How many items should be presented, and how would they be chosen? Should the closeness of a vote affect implementation? Should items involve very broad issues or relatively specific policies? Would the President and Congress be bound by a vote or required to follow particular guidelines in considering voting results? Would there be “referenda” (introduced by legislators) or “initiatives” (initiated by citizens)?

Admittedly, this process likely requires a constitutional amendment, initiated by Congress or by a constitutional convention called by state legislatures (all amendments thus far went through Congress first). So, indeed, which groups and leaders must be brought on board before this system is approved?   Citizens’ groups, media, public interest groups, and others will need to pressure Congress to bring this proposal to fruition. A sympathetic president would surely help. A non-partisan commission, including both government and non-government constituencies, could work through the details and enlist those needed to implement the proposal.

This would not be a perfect system (none is). However, if you find merit in this proposal, discuss it with your neighbors, elected officials, and others. Interested organizations could collaborate to make direct democracy a reality. Many Americans are dissatisfied with our current political system. Let’s give real democracy a try.

Neil Wollman, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility; Bentley University; 260-568-0116

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