9/21/2008

The Stupidity of Direct Democracy

I will make this statement and stick by it: The dumbest of our founding fathers had infinitely more wisdom and vision than the smartest politician or political scientist living today.

I would almost say that the janitor sweeping the floor at the Constitutional Convention had more going on in the way of political vision than politicians and political scientists today. But, I exaggerate.

ConstituitonalConventionPtg I am voting for the first time in a state that has "ballot initiatives." This is the ubiquitous "Proposition" that we would hear about back east and sort of scratch our heads wondering what all the fuss was.

See, for the most part back east we sort of stuck to the model of the Founders. That is a representative democracy or as it is termed in government and social studies classes a "Republican Democracy". This means that we elect people to represent us in a governmental body and those folks make the laws, supposedly, for the public good. The rest of us can go about our daily business and not worry about the minutiae of legal language, constitutionality of laws, budgetary impact, and thousand other assorted necessary bits of information in making laws and governing.

image But, out here in the Wild West the "ballot initiative" rules. Basically, if you've got the cash you can get your crazy ass law on the ballot and try to convince people you've got enough sense to make law.

That's a little scary. For example, today my "voter guide" arrived from the State of Arizona listing nine ballot initiatives we'll have to vote on in November. Oh, and we're also voting for the people who are supposed to be making the laws that Joe Blow off the street is trying to make anyway. I can't figure out why we need one if we've got the other. Anyway, here's what we're dealing with come November:

  • Prop 100 - This one blocks the legislature from imposing a Real Estate Transfer tax. Most states have such a system that usually is less than 1% of the value of the property sold or transferred. No one has filed any official "opposition" to the initiative so, if it's that popular, why can't these folks get it through the legislature? Instead, I've got to now try to educate myself on the tax code in Arizona to understand how my vote would impact overall by reducing revenue to the state and local governments. The problem is, I doubt anyone else will do that. They'll just check a box and hope for the best.
  • Prop 101 - This one says that people can't be penalized for choosing to have a private pay plan. That people cannot be forced to use a doctor or choose a particular type of health plan or even be required to have insurance at all. Sounds fine on the surface. Unfortunately, it's broadly written and depending on how the first court to hear a case decides it could dismantle the Medicaid system, throw managed care plans and employer plans into disarray and halt any chances for Universal Coverage at the state level. But, do you think anyone voting is going to pay attention to that? Nope. It just sounds all freedomy and libertariany so, damn the consequences vote it in.
  • Prop 102 - My personal favorite. This is the constitutional amendment to define "marriage is between one man and one woman." This is backed by the LDS (reeling after the polygamy and child abuse scandals) and the Roman Catholics with a little help from the Fundamentalists. Arizona already has a law that says this, but that wasn't good enough so here we go again. Now, this is important as you will see in a moment.... this prop made the ballot after failing several times in the legislature. Late one day during debate on a property tax bill the Republican chair (and Roman Catholic puppet) cut off the microphones of two openly gay legislators and stopped debate on the tax bill. He then allowed one of his colleagues in the pay of the right wing special interests to introduce this measure in a chamber that was barely a quorum and filled primarily with right leaning Republicans. In other words, they couldn't pass it in full session so they held a quasi-legal proceeding, broke the most basic ethics rules and got it on the ballot. Remember this as we move down the list!
  • Prop 105 - This one says that in order to impose more taxes or spending requires a majority of legislators not just those voting! See, told you to remember the last one! It seems that the ballot initiative groupies think it's a bad thing for legislators to use these backdoor sessions to deal with taxes and spending but perfectly OK to do it to deprive people of their rights. Heck, I'll probably just vote against this one to protest the last one.
  • Prop 200 - This one deals with reforms in the Payday Loan Industry and was sponsored by the industry. Seems their legal status is expiring in the state and they want to put on a good face for the public. Honestly, I don't care one way or the other on this one. If you have "overdraft protection" at your bank and go over by 1 penny they charge you about $35 for that penny overnight and often as much as $5 a day after that. In my book, a Payday Lender charging $15 on a $100 loan for a week isn't nearly as extortionist as that.
  • Prop 201 - This one establishes a 10 year warranty on new homes and lots of other stuff dealing with financing and disclosures. Again, this is one of those laws that is very detailed and could have far reaching consequences especially considering the number of Wildcat developers in Arizona. But, while it sounds good on the surface, it's much too complex to ask most voters to understand and to assess long range consequences of the law.
  • Prop 202 - This is the ubiquitous western "anti-illegal immigrant" proposition. This one increases penalties on businesses for hiring illegal aliens as well as stiffens penalties for illegals who steal identities in order to pass pre-employment checks. Again, it's a pretty in depth law with lots of penalties and needs legal knowledge to fully appreciate its strengths and weaknesses. But, again, in the anti-immigration climate of the Southwest it will pass. Personally, after looking for work here for months and seeing "must be bilingual" everywhere I say if they want to make things tough on illegals, make it illegal to require employees to be able to speak Spanish. That would satisfy the "English First" crowd too. But, that might make bilking them out their money harder, so our "patriots" won't be going that route!
  • Prop 300 - Raises the legislature salaries from $24,000 to $30,000 a year. See, that's about what I used to make working full time so these folks are full-time employees (at least in my book) so instead of all this ballot nonsense, make them do their jobs or fire them!
  • Prop ??? - Called the "Arizona School District Consolidation Act" this one would consolidate 76 of 227 school districts in Arizona. Again, this is an incredibly complex issue involving knowledge of budgets, finances, shortfalls, salaries, individual education plans, job losses, job gains, how overlaps would be handled and hundred other issues. Yet, instead of this complex issue being decided by people who have the time and resources to research it fully, it's going to be made by people who are hurrying to get through voting during their lunch hour.

Honestly, I don't get this whole idea. I'm all for democracy, but like the Founding Fathers, I don't believe that every person out there has what it takes to be a legislator. That is exactly why they established a representational form of democracy. Their hope was that the best and brightest would be sent to the deliberative bodies and make wise decisions. Certainly, it can be argued that is no longer the case, and maybe even allowing this whole "ballot initiative" system is a sign that they aren't. But, whose fault is that? Our own for allowing candidates who are not the smartest to be elected. It is our fault for voting because someone seems like a "cool guy to have a beer with" or they like hunting or seem funny on a comedy show appearance or any of the other idiotic things people state in polls when they can't even think of one policy statement for the candidate.

It is too bad that the Western states do not heed the sage advice of James Madison who wrote in The Federalist Papers (no. 10):

"A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

Proposition Number 102 this November in Arizona could not be a better example of Madison's argument for Representative government. And we shall see his predicted outcome when it passes.

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