A Political Comment

Is it a good idea that by a popular vote of merely 50% + 1 the voters of a state can bypass their elected officials and pass a law?

Whether it’s a good idea or not, that’s the way it apparently is in a few states—states as different geographically and politically as California and Ohio, for example.

I have gone on record as saying that it’s a bad idea because in the short term voters can be easily manipulated, and a simple majority can exercise tyranny over a minority.

Plus, I can point to historic precedent in California where voters really did vote in some truly bad propositions:

1978: Significant property tax reduction and limits; imposing 2/3 vote requirement of the Legislature for state taxes and 2/3 voter approval requirement for local special taxes.

1994: Denying undocumented immigrants eligibility to receive public services.

2000: Banning same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, California’s proposition system did result in:

1996: Legalizing medical marijuana under California law.

So it’s not all bad, right?

Still, I didn’t like the idea of a simple majority being able to bypass the duly elected legislators. Rather than 50% +1, I thought perhaps it should require 55% of the vote.

It seems I have something in common with the Ohio Republicans.

They have decided to hold a special election on August 8 (when they expect that few voters will make it to the polls). The purpose of the election is to decide whether Issue 1 will pass or not. Issue 1’s purpose:

Increases the number of counties from which signatures are required to get an amendment on the ballot from 44 counties (50%) to all 88 counties (100%).

Removes the 10-day cure period to fix any errors in the collected signatures.

Increases the passing percentage from 50%+1 vote to 60% on citizen and legislature-initiated referendums.

And why are the Republicans doing this? Because in the November general election the voters will decide on a referendum to restore access to medical care for pregnant women * in the state of Ohio, and the Republicans are scared shitless that if the percentage for passing remains at 50% + 1, it will pass, and they don’t want that to happen. So with the August election they are trying to head that off, as they think that a low turnout at the polls will work in their favor. Alas, for the Republicans’ hopes, there has been a lot of early voting, most of it coming from districts that are likely to vote in favor of medical care for pregnant women* and therefore in opposition to Issue 1.

I bring this all up because the good folks at E-V.com fielded a question about whether it’s a good idea that 50% + 1 should be able to pass laws in today’s Q&A, and I thought their answer was interesting.

This is, of course, something the fellows who wrote the Constitution wrestled with. And all we can tell you are two things: (1) If you set up a system where, say, 52% are not allowed to make decisions, then you necessarily set up a system where 48% are; and (2) It may not be possible to veto the results of initiative processes, but the courts, both state and federal, still act as a check on the process. There are many times that a majority, and even a supermajority, of citizens in a state have made a decision, only to be course-corrected by the courts.

And when I look back at some of the bad California propositions that passed, I see that denying immigrants public services and banning same sex marriages were both declared unconstitutional. So perhaps the courts do sometimes perform a course correction.

* The medical care for pregnant women is called abortion. I you don’t think abortion qualifies as medical care, I suggest you read this.

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