COMMENTARY: Issue 2 showed challenges of direct democracy

Like many Ohioans, my wife and I struggled earlier this month on Election Day to decide how to vote on Issue 2.

Confused and uncertain about its effects, we eventually cast our votes and then watched, unsurprised, as it failed miserably. The problem it sought to tackle — astronomically high drug prices — is one a huge majority of our fellow citizens across the state and nation would like to see government address. Voter frustration with legislative inaction on this and other issues understandably makes us look for alternative paths for solutions and relief.

As a product of the early 20th century populist movement, the citizen initiative process was specifically designed to be such an alternative path to lawmaking that is more responsive to citizens’ demands. However, the recent experience with Issue 2 highlights the problems with citizens voting directly on complex legislation. It’s reasonable to consider some reforms.

Proponents of initiatives maintain they give voters the chance to control government directly and therefore avoid 1) insincere or misleading behavior by elected politicians, and 2) legislative inaction. Opponents question whether citizen’s preferences can truly be expressed through this procedure due to the complexity of many issues, and perhaps more importantly, because powerful special interests often hijack the process.

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One of the most provocative studies addressing these concerns examined the initiative process in California, a state with heavy use of the procedure. In “Stealing the Initiative,” the authors’ research question is, “once voters approve a ballot proposal, is it complied with?” Their data show that, often, only partial compliance occurs; sometimes government officials do not implement the initiative at all according to the wishes of the voters.

Opposition to the initiative by key elected officials, minimal support for the proposal at the ballot box, high costs of implementation, the inability of supporters to clearly monitor compliance, and the number of government officials and agencies involved in the law’s implementation, all undermine full compliance. Regarding Ohio, evidence shows that in recent years, out-of-state lobbies have increasingly influenced which issues get on the ballot, as well as the election outcomes.

Initiatives emerge out of citizen aggravation with unresponsive legislators; the basis for keeping them as alternatives to legislative inaction remains. However, knowing that full compliance with citizen-approved initiatives often does not happen, what reforms might make the process more effective?

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One suggestion is to leave proposals on complex policies to the legislature, while permitting proposals aimed at changing fundamental governmental structures or processes, which allow for easier compliance monitoring. Some examples might include how legislative districts are drawn, the size of the legislative body, or expanding voting rights.

Two other suggestions recently introduced by State Rep. Niraj Antani (R-Miamisburg) are to increase the number of signatures needed to qualify an issue for the ballot, and to raise the passage requirement from a simple majority to 60 percent so proponents can clearly demonstrate strong support, which research shows can improve compliance. Each of these three reform ideas deserves a healthy democratic debate.

Rob Baker, Ph.D., teaches political science at Wittenberg University and is a regular contributor.

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