Direct Democracy: Good News for Gays and Grass | By Navneet Khinda

When you think of the 2012 U.S elections, you’re probably thinking of the horse-race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. However, though not much has changed (the House and Senate are relatively the same and good ol’ Barry got a second term) it’s at the state level where the real policy changes happened.

You might be aware that each state has a number of different ballot measures on their ballots. What are ballot measures?

In the U.S, it’s a process which allows citizens of many states to place new legislation, or laws recently passed by the legislature, on a ballot and to then vote on it. Ballot measures include both initiatives and referendums and they differ from most legislation because in a representative democracy, it’s the elected officials that pass laws. Here, citizens can vote directly on legislation, hence the term “direct democracy”.

There are literally hundreds of different amendments and policy proposals put forth this year, ranging from legalizing/banning same-sex marriage, health insurance, abortion, medical marijuana, marijuana legalization, capital punishment, and voter ID laws (just to name a few).

What’s the outcome so far?

By the looks of it, this use of direct democracy has resulted in three states legalizing marijuana! Amendment 64 passed in Colorado, thereby legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Washington passed Initiative 502 which legalizes, regulates, and taxes sales of small amounts of marijuana. And not as exciting, but still good – Massachusetts approved it for medical use.

Gay marriage is legal in six states and Washington, D.C., but those laws were either enacted by lawmakers or through court rulings. Yesterday however, by the vote of the people, state policy was set to change. Maryland, Washington, and Maine legalized same-sex marriage while the northern state of Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment which called for a ban on same-sex marriage. Furthermore, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay US Senator – very exciting news all around! (On a side note, Spain’s highest court upheld the country’s gay marriage law on Tuesday as well!)

And for better or for worse, Oklahoma has approved a Republican-backed ban on affirmative action programs and Alabama rejected mandatory health care coverage.

In my opinion, many of these changes are to be welcomed, but others not so much. This brings up the always contested question: is direct democracy via ballot measures actually a sound way to make policy? I’m not so sure.

It can be argued that initiatives and referendums undermine representative government by circumventing elected representatives and the legislative process by allowing the people to directly make policy. There’s a fear of tyranny of the majority, and logistically, some proposals may be difficult to reconcile with existing laws. Furthermore, the people aren’t necessarily the best actors to make laws. For example, there were ballot measures regarding tax increases but is it appropriate to ask taxpayers to make this decision?

On the flip side, direct democracy provides an outlet for citizens who are unimpressed and frustrated with what can be seen as stagnant politics in legislatures across the country. Yet I would venture to say that some ballot measures are driven by cowardice on the part of legislators who can’t face the task of solving difficult problems and would rather retreat to the safety of their ideological sanctums.

Does the high number of referendums reflect a deepening polarization in the United States? Despite Obama suggesting in his victory speech that “[they] are not as divided as the politics suggests”, I sincerely think that the electorate is volatile and segmented. Despite this, the results do provide insight into the changing attitudes across the nation.

While this election won’t break the partisan gridlock in Congress, some serious changes have been made for social policy issues at the state level. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out and the influence that these results could potentially have on federal law.

Navneet is a third year political science student taking an intro to American politics class. Hopefully you can tell she learned something. Follow her @navneetkhinda

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