Sunday, January 1

The case for ballot initiatives, and improving them

I challenge anyone to find a State legislature  whose record compares to what Coloradans have done with ballot initiatives, a form of direct democracy:

In 2000 Colorado voters passed Amendment 20, legalizing medical marijuana, Amendment 22, closing the gun-show loophole and Amendment 23, raising K-12 spending. In 2002 we passed Initiative 27, one of the country's strongest campaign finance limits. In 2004 we passed Initiative 37, the country's first renewable energy mandate for utilities. In 2006 we passed Amendment 41,  the country's strongest Ethics in Government law, and Initiative 42, raising the minimum wage. In 2008 we passed Amendment 54,  which prohibits government contractors from making campaign donations. In 2012 we passed Amendment 64,  the country's first legal marijuana AND hemp, and we voted 3 to 1 for Amendment 65, asking  our Congressional Representatives  to  work  to reverse Citizens United. (Only 1 of 7 did anything,  showing how poorly they represent us.) And in 2016 we passed Amendment 70 for a $12/hr. minimum wage, Proposition 106, Medical Assistance in Dying for the terminally ill and Proposition 107, for Open Presidential Primaries. (You can find details of each at Just search for "Colorado Amendment [or Initiative or Proposition] X")

During a similar time the Colorado legislature has done little but prevent local communities from solving their own problems with preemptive laws, such as against local minimum wages, rent control, gun control, and banning fracking.  

The downside of initiatives is far less harmful than legislation as well. Contrast a few ballot initiatives impeding gay rights and abortion with all 50 state legislatures criminalizing sodomy and abortion and jailing people for decades. Not to mention interning Japanese during World War II, persecuting communists,  socialists and friends during the McCarthy era and imprisoning millions of marijuana smokers over the last 80 years. 

Media, not just in Colorado, have focused on the few problematic ballot initiatives like Colorado's 1992 Taxpayer Bill of Rights Amendment 1, which voters gave a 5 year time out in 2005, by voting for Referendum C. Rather than act to finally fix TABOR, the Colorado Legislature keeps trying to make the initiative process harder, including with 2008's defeated Referendum O. The same forces finally succeeded with 2016's Amendment 71, by going the initiative route, to make it appear to be a grassroots effort. 71 makes the process much more expensive for regular people, without inconveniencing wealthy users of the ballot initiative process.

Oregon has instead improved its ballot initiative process with Citizen Initiative Review. By having randomly-selected "citizen juries" deliberate each initiative, problems like TABOR's "racheting down provision," hidden in its back pages unnoticed, would have been exposed before we voted on it. 

Citizens in both Oregon and California have tried, using ballot initiatives, to get their Secretaries of State to allow signing ballot initiative petitions on the SOS website. This would open the process to groups without huge funds, save the SOS the expense of comparing physical signatures (ID would be by driver's license, etc., as with online registration in over half the states), reduce misrepresentation and harassment for signatures, get more voters to read more of the initiative texts before signing, and save gas, time and money.

I list four other improvements to the process in my article Why Bernie Sanders should put Direct Democracy at the top of our Agenda

The initiative and referendum process is the origin of most US reforms, from women's suffrage to sunshine laws to medical marijuana to term limits. See initiatives for references and more examples.

"On most major issues we've dealt with in the past 50 years, the public was more likely to be right...based on the judgment of history...than the legislatures or Congress." -George Gallup, Sr.