Who's in Charge Here?

Ballot referenda take legitimacy away from our elected leaders

On Tuesday, Americans made the collective decision to stay the course, voting to reelect President Barack Obama by a relatively large margin. Yet, as most college students—especially in Colorado and Washington—know, President of the United States was not the only choice presented to the voting public. In many states, citizens were expected to do more than display their preferences for who should govern the country. They were expected to actually do some of the governing themselves. Here in Massachusetts, this manifested in ballot measures on automobile insurance, assisted suicide, and medicinal marijuana.

Plenty of results from Tuesday’s election are worth celebrating. Marriage equality activists point to successful referenda in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. Few argue with California’s decision to increase punishment for those convicted of human trafficking. However, getting excited over these results risks ignoring the fundamental problem with state ballot measures: that they are anathema to our system of representative government.

This year, 176 questions resided on ballots in various states. Their topics ranged from Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust Amendment to West Virginia’s Sheriff Term Limit Amendment. If you have a well-reasoned position on the optimal length of a sheriff’s term, well, then you are probably the sheriff. There is little reason to believe that the electorate, which the mainstream media perceives to be intellectually inferior enough to be susceptible to scurrilously depthless campaign ads, have the wherewithal to make critical decisions on issues that they cannot fully understand. While marijuana provisions were not without their share of supporters this fall, very few of those proponents can be said to understand the full implications of implementing sale of the drug. This is exactly why we have elected officials.

Regardless of what students are taught in elementary school, the United States of America is not a democracy. We obviously do not have time to govern the country. We have work to do and bills to pay. We don’t all head to the Pnyx of Ancient Greece to debate the merits of our pet causes. Rather, we choose a select few representatives to do that job for us. Because of our extensive primary system, these representatives are expected to be knowledgeable and reasonable individuals to whom we entrust decision-making authority. Employing people who govern for a living releases us from the unreasonable responsibility of reading up on each and every minor issue.

But for some reason, we have apparently decided that we do not fully trust these elected representatives. In Maryland, for example, Governor Martin J. O’Malley signed the Civil Marriage Protection Act, which legalized same-sex marriage, all the way back in March. Apparently that was not enough for same-sex marriage supporters in the state, since they went through the painstaking trouble of getting the question on the ballot with the sole intent of affirming the measure. While news headlines gleefully proclaim that “Maryland Approves Gay Marriage,” the actual ramifications of the passage of Question 6 are minimal. Same-sex marriage was already legal. Question 6 was merely an exercise in demonstrating that citizens do indeed follow the laws enacted by their local government.

The case in Maine is decidedly distinct, although the print media has not felt the need to differentiate. Maine passed a law allowing same-sex marriages in 2009, only to see it overturned by what was termed a “people’s veto” that same year.  Now, three Novembers later, voters did an about-face and reinstituted the law. This not only means that Maine wasted those three years in which same-sex marriages could have been lawful, but it also demonstrates the fickleness of the American populace. Maine’s elected officials did a good job predicting what its residents would eventually want. Unfortunately, Mainers were not prescient enough to realize it themselves.

There is a reason the Founding Fathers established the country as a constitutional republic. We have the power and the responsibility of electing individuals to carefully consider the important issues of our day. We also have the far greater power and responsibility of electing replacement individuals if the first set does not turn out the way we hope. There should be no need for a direct democracy in a constitutional republic. If there are enough people in a polis to vote for legalizing marijuana or same-sex marriage, there should be an ample number of individuals with those stances able to take positions in public service.

Instead of pretending to be citizens of the Acropolis, state activists should spend more time recruiting candidates who support their causes. Inherent tension between the will of the legislature and the will of the people is not a sign of a healthy polity. We should decide once and for all who has legitimate governing power. The answer to this question should be clear. Once that is figured out, Congress just has to find a way to get its approval rating above 17 percent.

John F. M. Kocsis ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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