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In the USA, direct democracy as a medicine against divisiveness

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In the USA, direct democracy as a medicine against divisiveness


The fate of Donald Trump’s Presidency and the future of America weren’t the only choices confronting voters on November 3rd. In fact, the citizens in 32 states cast their vote and made their voice heard on 117 statewide ballot propositions. Of these, 41 were placed on the ballot by the people collecting signatures and 76 were placed on the ballot by state legislatures. This is the lowest number of statewide  propositions the voters faced in the 21st century. The primary reason for the low number can be attributed to the immense challenges of collecting signatures and meeting other legal requirements to place an issue on the ballot amidst COVID quarantines and other related restrictions.

By M. Dane Waters.

As with every election when the people have the opportunity to make decisions on issues that impact their daily lives, the topics of the ballot questions were far reaching – from animal welfare, drug legalization, labor laws, race and immigration, abortion to the design of a new flag, statehood, and on the very fate of direct democracy itself.

Voters in Colorado voted to reintroduce grey wolves into the Southern Rocky Mountains after they were hunted to extinction by the 1940s. In Arizona and New Jersey, the citizens voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana while South Dakotans approved both medical and recreational use. In California, the future of gig companies like Lyft and Uber was saved when voters agreed to labor law changes that allowed them to continue their successful business model.

Abortion continued to be an issue with no clear consensus among the national electorate. Voters in Louisiana voted for greater restrictions on abortions while Colorado voters rejected them.

Race and immigration were also on the ballot, though subtly in some cases. In Rhode Island voters agreed to take the word “plantations” out of the official state name. In a symbolic vote in Alabama voters approved the removal of language from the state’s constitution that gave specific rights to whites and men and in Mississippi the voters approved a new state flag finally removing symbols of white supremacy. In Alabama, Colorado, and Florida voters overwhelmingly approved constitutional amendments clarifying that only citizens of the US could vote in state or local elections.

In Puerto Rico, which is not a state but a protectorate of the United States, the voters once again made clear their desire to be a state. The vote is non-binding but there is hope that the US Congress will take notice and consider making Puerto Rico the 51st state respecting the people’s right to self-determination.

The future of direct democracy itself was on the ballot in multiple states.  Proposed laws that would make it more difficult to pass future ballot propositions were on the ballot in Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota. Voters in Florida and North Dakota defeated requirements that constitutional amendments would need to pass twice before becoming law and in Arkansas a proposed law to make it more arduous to collect signatures to place issues on the ballot was also defeated.  Outcomes that make clear the citizens' strong belief in the need for direct democracy as a check and balance on government.

However, even though the citizens made it clear this election that they want a strong and vibrant system of direct democracy, courts are becoming more active in denying the people’s ability to rightly decide on issues that matter most to them. Using liberal and questionable interpretations of the technical requirements to place issues on the ballot, courts invalidated initiatives before being placed on the ballot because they violated arcane and illogical laws that limit the subject matter of ballot propositions as well as who can collect signatures to place issues on the ballot.

This election, like many before it, made clear that direct democracy at the state level in the United States is an important tool of self-governance and a necessary check to limit the power of government. It is also a safety valve in allowing the people to vote on controversial and divisive issues in a  way that will end in peaceful resolution of the issue thus reducing the political stress that could lead to prolonged upheaval among the electorate. This is why direct democracy at the federal level is a critical need that must be addressed - to allow for the same safety valve at the federal level that is available at the state level. Americans need the ability to voice opinions on highly controversial issues collectively as a nation. If direct democracy at the federal level existed, there is little doubt that the voters would be less likely to vote into office individuals who feed off the divisiveness of an issue and instead put in office those who respect the rule of law and will work to unify rather than divide. Let’s hope that this election is the first step in bringing the critical awareness necessary to give the citizens direct democracy at the federal level, so we no longer put our fate in the emotional aberrations of a single person.


Article photo courtesy of Patrick Thibodeau (CC BY 2.0 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/18635830)





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