Opinion Columns & Blogs

Voter initiative sounds good but is bad idea

Master provocateur Kris Kobach, Republican nominee for secretary of state, is at it again. Kobach wants to bring voter initiative to Kansas.

Initiatives allow citizens to propose laws and constitutional amendments by convincing a percentage of voters to sign a petition that puts a question on the ballot. The idea sounds great. But direct democracy is the fool's paradise of modern political life.

The voter-initiative idea is a remnant of the early 20th-century progressive era, which had the greatest of intentions. When citizens thought their state legislatures were in the back pockets of interests in the 1900s, they wanted to use initiatives to bypass the assembly and reclaim government.

But the law of unintended consequences reared its ugly head. The progressives gave a powerful democratic tool to people who would not use it as intended. The result has been a century of disengagement by the public and more cynicism.

Kansans had the right idea when they rejected Gov. Joan Finney's proposal for initiative in the 1990s.

There are three fundamental problems with initiatives: The process is easily manipulated. Initiative history has been disastrous where it has been tried. And the public does not participate enough in the process.

Look to a state such as California to see all three problems with initiative. The idea that initiatives are products of everyday politics is false. Interest groups are more likely to craft the proposals and hire firms to collect signatures. The interests promote them hoping to mobilize enough voters to earn passage.

Initiatives don't lessen money in politics; they provide another place to spend. If a state legislature won't cave to the interest's demands, start an initiative and get the public to do your dirty work. Rather than giving the citizens an opportunity to minimize the influence of interests, the initiative gives any interest with a million dollars direct access to the ballot.

California also shows how confounding the initiative process is. A typical ballot there has 50 or more initiatives beyond the offices elected. Initiatives mean plenty of "roll-off," where voters complete other parts of the ballot but leave the initiatives blank. Initiatives have marginalized that state legislature's ability to budget, with multiple mandates for percentages of the state's expenditures allocated to certain areas; allowed a prison lobby to control most of the rest of the budget; and led to a nearly $10 billion deficit that shows no signs of resolution.

Silly initiatives make it onto ballots annually. Initiatives on the 2010 California ballot include ones that would ban divorce, end free speech in political campaigns and mandate that schools have students sing Christmas carols.

The public is the most important part of the failure. The initiative process requires an informed citizenry with a high desire to vote and the patience to wade through a long ballot filled with jargon. The American public has proved that ideal vision wrong time and again over the past century.

Turnout hovers just above 50 percent of register voters, at best. The population that seeks out political news on a weekly basis continues to shrink. Small turnout and high roll-off mean that only the most motivated participate in an initiative vote.

If we had 75 percent voter turnout and an electorate committed to informed participation, the initiative would be a worthwhile proposal. But initiatives actually serve to disconnect the public more from their politics, exactly the opposite of the original idea.