Topical Controversy A National Initiative Part 4

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




Issue: Can an initiative decision be bought by big money?

Con: The initiative will bring out the promoters of the "hate and fear" issues such as gay rights and capital punishment and will arouse the self-righteous majority to oppress minorities. The disenfranchised will become even more disenfranchised, and the majority will kick aside minority rights. Vested interests and big money will be able to control the process with money. A spot on the ballot is won with signatures, and signatures can be bought at so much each. Companies specializing in signature collection will get them for anyone willing to pay. Expensive media campaigns can manipulate the minds of voters. In 1980 a proposition to create smoking and nonsmoking sections in public places gained a spot on the California ballot. Early polls showed over-whelming support for the proposal, even among smokers. However, the tobacco companies blanketed the state with a sophisticated $2.3 million media campaign, and the measure went down in defeat. It would cost 10 times as much to influence a national referendum. Large companies could threaten employees with loss of their jobs if they didn't vote the "right" way.

Peter Bachrach: "What it would come to is a contest between money and power groups."

Pro: It wasn't the people who interned the Japanese during W.W. II, but elected officials. Government can be repressive too. And the people, through state initiatives, have often protected the rights of the minorities. In any case, any law that infringes on minority rights can be overturned in the courts. It's naive to think that elected officials are immune to big money influence. Washington crawls with lobbyists. In fact, the cost of influencing a congressional vote is less than the cost of "buying" a bloc of voter minds. Moreover, money does not necessarily buy the results of a proposition on a state ballot, and it is logical to assume that the same would be true of a national initiative. In 1972, Proposition 20, which protected the California coastline, was passed in spite of the fact that the opposition outspent its proponents by 3 to 1. In California from 1972 to 1976, the side that spent the most money won in only 8 out of 16 initiative battles. When voters spot media manipulation, it can backfire. Any bill establishing a national initiative can have campaign finance safeguards and disclosure requirements built into it. Signature requirements could be set low enough so that volunteer grass-roots efforts to qualify a measure for the ballot could be successful.

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