State referendums promote direct democracy

Gradually the U.S has been moving toward greater direct democracy. Almost all states use referendums proposed by legislatures to allow the people to make decisions.
A white sign with a red arrow with "vote here" printed on the sign.
Photo by Erik Hersman/Flickr.

Last week Maine held a referendum on vaccinations — and will likely decide another issue with a statewide popular vote this year.

The National Popular Vote is gaining momentum and could lead to a majority of all American voters having a direct role in picking the president in 2024.

Democracy comes in two styles: direct and representative.

The U.S. has been a representative democracy from the outset. That’s what the concept of a “republic” meant to the drafters of the Constitution. They worried that citizens might be enflamed by momentary passions and make unwise decisions, while their representatives would be more careful.

But states could go their own way. Some already had direct democracy in the form of the Town Meeting, in which voters of a New England town act as its legislature. It has survived, and in Maine the Town Meeting season is just getting underway. 

Gradually the U.S has been moving toward greater direct democracy. Almost all states use referendums proposed by legislatures to allow the people to make decisions. Many states also allow initiatives in which people can propose laws or try to veto laws passed by their legislatures. In Maine, initiatives greatly exceed pure referendums. 

Referendum and initiative reflect the growth of popular democracy. The rules adopted by the founders have been changed. The Constitution now requires direct election of U.S. senators rather than their selection by state legislatures. The right to vote was expanded to include members of all races, women and young Americans.

For the first time, the entire country might find itself able to act through direct democracy. Electing the president by a majority vote of the entire country could replace the current state-by-state delegate system. Its adoption depends on favorable action by as few as seven more states, including Maine, where it nearly passed in the Legislature last year. 

Meanwhile, state referendums are increasing. In Maine, six petitions are now authorized for circulation and possible placement on the ballot in addition to the disputed Central Maine Power Co. Corridor veto, which has sufficient signatures.

There’s some opposition to more popular democracy. Critics believe the issues are too complicated for a simple up-or-down vote by average citizens. That means the Legislature may second-guess a popular decision. That could sound like continued distrust of average people.

But it is likely that many legislators don’t know the details of the laws they pass. Do members of Congress understand the terms of a 1,000-page tax law? Do Maine legislators know all the line items of the state budget? Lawmaking is left to a few legislators and staffers, distant from even representative democracy.

Occasionally a referendum becomes necessary when the Legislature cannot decide on an issue, so it passes the buck. It has sent matters, ranging from a Lewiston casino proposal (disapproved) to increasing the minimum wage (approved), out to the voters.

The only country where popular democracy is the normal way of doing much government business is Switzerland. People there vote several times a year on specific proposals. Recently they considered federal taxing powers and allowing insurance companies to use private detectives. Both passed. 

But there is a caution. The recent U.K. referendum on Brexit, held in a country with no tradition of direct democracy, left the nation unable to reconsider its decision as more facts became known.

The system should permit a change in popular thinking based on new facts. The people should have the possibility of a new vote, through elections or a new referendum.

Some critics say it’s too easy to get an initiative on the ballot. In Maine, the number of petition signers depends on the number of people who voted for governor. The state has high turnouts so the number seems reasonable, though it could be tied to presidential elections.

Another aspect is geographical distribution. Should a certain percentage of voters in each congressional district be required to launch an initiative or pass it? No such requirement exists for votes of the Legislature, so why should it apply to the voters, the ultimate legislature?

States with the Town Meeting form of government should be comfortable with popular legislating. Where jurisdictions are small, like Switzerland or Maine, popular democracy can work.

Popular democracy results from a better informed electorate, thanks to wider access to the media. And it ensures the principle of one-person, one-vote. Increased use by states is likely to continue. 

With a national forum having been created by the media and statewide direct elections now widely accepted and used, a national presidential popular election may also make sense. Its time seems to be coming.


Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil has been active in politics, journalism, publishing and energy consulting. A graduate of Bowdoin College, he has a master’s degree from the College of Europe (Belgium), and a Ph.D. from Columbia. He is an Army veteran. He was a top aide to U.S. Sen. George McGovern during his run for president. In Maine, he served as Commissioner of Business Regulation, Director of the Office of Energy Resources and the state’s first Public Advocate. He was a Harpswell selectman. He led the negotiations that created the unified New England power grid and chaired the national organization of state energy agencies. He reported for the Washington Post, Newsweek, London’s Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and WNET (New York). His weekly commentary has appeared in Maine newspapers since 2008. He has written or edited 16 books or collections ranging from the biography of Sears, Roebuck to the three-volume U.S. Supreme Court original jurisdiction decisions. His company, sold in 2005, was the largest publisher of state government regulatory codes.
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