Topical Controversy A National Initiative Part 1

About the controversy surrounding a national initiative giving the public a vote on matters of government legislation.




The initiative is a process whereby a bill or measure is "initiated" by a citizen and, bypassing the legislature, is then voted on directly by the people in an election. Generally, for an initiative to qualify for the ballot, a certain number of valid signatures must be collected to support it. The initiative becomes law if it is approved by a large enough majority of voters.

In 1977 Senators James Abourezk and Mark Hatfield introduced a constitutional amendment to permit national initiatives. Under their proposal, if a bill received the signatures of 3% of the voters in at least 10 states, it would qualify for the ballot of the next general election. If approved by the voters, the new law could not be changed or repealed by Congress for two years, except by a two thirds vote.

Is the voice of the people heard through initiatives liberal or conservative? As might be expected, that depends on how the pendulum of public opinion swings. Experience in what Sen. James Abourezk called the "state laboratory" would seem to indicate that it is politically neutral. When people begin thinking in a liberal way, they tend to vote on the liberal side, and liberals promote the initiative as a liberal tool. The reverse is true, too. State referendums and initiatives have been influential in gaining civil rights, protecting the environment, reforming civil service, and guarding consumer interests. Measures on these issues have also been voted down. A good example is recent experience with property taxes. California's Proposition 13 to limit property taxes passed by a 64% majority in 1978 and set off "tax revolt fever" in other states. Yet while 10 such propositions made state ballots in 1980, only 3 were voted in.

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