Let’s avoid the referendum trap

The British initiative known as Brexit is my candidate for the worst referendum in the history of the world.

In Brexit, citizens of the United Kingdom voted in 2017 to withdraw from the European Union by simply voting  “leave” or “remain.” The simplicity was massively deceptive.

Now the world is watching as the UK undergoes the agony of trying to get itself out of this complex international treaty, which will affect every citizen of the UK in multiple ways.

Brexit is, thank goodness, not our problem. I mention it because it’s an object lesson in what’s wrong with referenda and why we should be extremely cautious about them.

In trying to make policy by popular vote, it is hard to get it right and easy to screw it up. The issues are almost always more complicated than what can be captured a yes or no vote on an oversimplified statement.

And, let’s face it, nothing is a grassroots movement by the time it gets to the ballot box. While ideas may start at the grassroots, a referendum involves selling a whole lot of people on the concept so that they will sign petitions. In today’s overheated political environment, that requires support by a professional campaign, which means the movement becomes a business.

A referendum issue known as Democracy Dollars, related to public financing of local election campaigns, slipped on to the ballot in the recent local election in Albuquerque. It failed to pass, though the margin was surprisingly small.

The proposal worked like this: in the local election, there is already money set aside for public financing of candidates. Democracy Dollars would allow voters to determine how that money is distributed by giving voters vouchers worth $25 to apply to a particular candidate. Supposedly this would make running for office easier for candidates who do not appeal to the donor class of voters.

The concept is worth considering. But the language in the official proposition contained the statement:  “City Council by ordinance may increase but shall not decrease the dollar amounts in … this section.”

In other words, this proposal would have limited the future ability of the City Council to fix something if the program was not working correctly. Similar tricky language, intended to limit the future power of the local legislative body, had been used in a 2016 attempt to require private employers to provide sick leave.

I’m willing to guess that most of the people who signed the petition to get the proposition on the ballot had not read that sentence.

We decide most issues by means of representative government instead of direct democracy because the issues are complex and require analysis. Most of us don’t have the time and energy for that, so we elect representatives to do it for us and to work out their disagreements through debate and compromise. While legislators are far from perfect, the legislative process is the best chance for coming up with laws that work.

And it is the most efficient recourse for amending the law if something isn’t working as intended.

At the state level, New Mexico’s constitution does not allow citizen initiatives on the ballot. The only way to have a statewide popular vote on an issue is that it first must be approved by the legislature as a proposed amendment to the state constitution.

Traditionally, legislators propose amendments only to change existing provisions related to government structure.  They restrain themselves from adding extraneous provisions that belong in ordinary legislation, not the Constitution.

We had a close call a few years ago when some legislators were threatening to propose a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. They were frustrated by former Gov. Susana Martinez’ recalcitrance in refusing to sign a bill, had she been presented with one. But prudecne prevailed and they didn’t do it.

That could have become our little miniature Brexit. Thank goodness.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2019

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