Open debate, not anti-democratic politics

By Paul Jacob,

Democracy is the driving force behind our national political system and is arguably at the core of what it means to be an American. So why are some people so set against it?

Oregonians are fortunate to be able to vote for or against proposed laws. Most state constitutions don’t allow citizens that power, but in 1902, an initiative and referendum process was adopted. The Oregon System of direct legislation served as a national model for open and accessible government, eventually spreading to 24 states. By initiating and signing petitions, Oregonians take a direct hand in their own political system. That’s an important power, because the interests of legislators and lobbyists don’t always align with the interests of the people.

This fact is illustrated well by two initiatives that are likely headed for the November ballot.
Reinstating Legislative Term Limits would revive a 1992 constitutional provision struck down in 2001. Lawmakers so thoroughly disliked the original law that they sued to overturn it. That was a clear indication that legislators would never approve restrictions on their own tenure. The only way to enact the intent of the 70% majority of Oregonians is via direct democracy again, this time with a measure that will withstand constitutional scrutiny.

The Rainy Day Amendment would limit increases in state government spending to the growth rate of inflation plus population. Spending beyond that would be subject to voter approval. Surplus revenues would build a reserve, so there would be funds to draw on during the next economic downturn. Because it empowers voters, not politicians, the Rainy Day Amendment is unlikely to ever be proposed by legislators – leaving matters to Oregonians directly.

To some, the initiatives now circulating are controversial. Although the essence of democracy is free and open debate, opponents of this year’s initiatives have cynically targeted the initiative process itself.

Some opponents of direct democracy complain that Oregonians are too easily manipulated by initiative proponents. They paint negative-campaign pictures of conspiratorial politics, while implying that Oregonians are too ill-informed to make their own decisions.

Going beyond talk, they take direct action. A carefully documented 2003 article in Brainstorm NW detailed how some groups intimidated and even assaulted petition circulators in a coordinated effort to prevent initiatives from reaching the voters. This year, it’s more of the same, with anti-voter groups in Nevada even ordered by a judge to cease and desist. Open debate is an essential element of democracy. These tactics are especially corrosive since they are meant to stifle the debate that would otherwise take place for and against ballot measures.

As petitions make the rounds of public places and private homes, registered voters should read them carefully, signing only those that they determine should be put to a public discussion and vote. Just as importantly, we should allow our neighbors to make the same choices for themselves. For over a century, Oregon has been a national model for democratic government. That legacy is worth preserving.

Paul Jacob is Senior Fellow of Americans for Limited Government and US Term Limits, two groups backing Oregon petitions. He is also President of Citizens In Charge, a group that defends and promotes the initiative and referendum process of direct democracy.