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Washington Journal: Citizen Initiatives -- Direct Democracy

By Annie Hillar

Washington, 30 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Next week, citizens across the United States will flex their electoral muscle in what is known as an exercise in "direct democracy."

Voters practice direct democracy by answering "yes" or "no" to legislative proposals on their November 3 state ballots on topics ranging from increases in the minimum wage to gay marriage.

Direct democracy can take two forms: the citizen initiative and the legislative referendum. Initiatives are proposals about a particular issue placed on the election ballot by an individual or a group. A referendum is a question put to voters by the elected legislature.

To get a citizen initiative on the ballot, a sponsor usually must submit a petition and obtain a specific number of signatures from registered voters.

Twenty-four of the 50 U.S. states allow citizens to put initiatives on election ballots. All 50 states use the legislative referendum. In several states next week, citizens will practice both types of direct democracy.

Jennie Drage, research analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, told RFE/RL that this year, 55 initiatives and five referendums will be voted on out of 234 ballot questions nationwide.

Drage says use of the citizen initiative, first begun in South Dakota in 1898, has dramatically increased in the 1990s. In the last election, more than 90 were on the ballots. This year, there are 60. About 30 percent of all initiatives are actually approved.

However, the citizen initiative is not fully accepted as a tool to express the popular will. Several states have put forth propositions to alter the initiative process.

Oregon began to use citizen initiatives in 1902, and has put 304 initiatives on the ballot since then -- the most of any state. This year, a measure seeks to make initiative sponsors more accountable for how they gather signatures and disseminate information. Legislators in Wyoming have proposed a similar measure.

Critics say the measures would make it harder for citizens to get initiatives on the ballot. Supporters say they would eliminate fraud.

Drage says citizen initiatives are a thorny issue because they are sometimes seen as dishonest ways of proposing changes to laws.

She says: "States sometimes perceive fraud. Even if there's a perception of fraud there, that can take away people's faith in the legislative process, in the elections process."

Drage says fraud can occur when special interest groups get involved in the initiative process.

She says: "Sometimes wealthy special interests will spend a lot of money on a ballot issue campaign. They will spend money to get it on the ballot, they'll pay signature gatherers, and then spend a lot of money on advertising. There's a saying that with a million dollars you can get any issue on the ballot."

An initiative in the Pacific Northwest state of Alaska is an example of the increasing importance of money and special interest groups on state issues.

The initiative calls for the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. Some cancer patients claim that marijuana, which is illegal in the United States, eases the side effects of cancer treatment.

Americans for Medical Rights, a national organization backed by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, donated 126,000 dollars to the initiative's sponsors. The opponents raised a total of only 750 dollars from a local source.

The money donated by the Soros-sponsored organization has helped the initiative's backers pay for advertisements and the costs of the campaign, while the opposition has depended on local volunteers and donations of equipment.

David Morris, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says two thirds of the initiatives proposed in the 1994 elections were decided in favor of the side with the highest spending.

On the other hand, Drage says a positive aspect to citizen initiatives is that they often address issues that legislatures don't want to consider.

On the ballot in the midwestern state of Michigan is an initiative with moral, religious and ethical conflicts -- physician assisted suicide.

The initiative made it to the ballot because its sponsors obtained the required 250,000 valid signatures of registered voters. And regardless of the outcome on election day, the initiative has shown that a sizable portion of the state's registered voters think physician assisted suicide is a legitimate issue for the electorate to consider.

Even if one passes, the U.S. Supreme Court can strike down any state law resulting from a citizen initiative if it decides that the law violates the U.S. Constitution.

There is no provision in the constitution for national referendums or citizen initiatives in the U.S. The U.S. Congress has always resisted efforts to establish them, viewing referendums as an infringement on the law-making powers of congress.

(Another in RFE/RL's series previewing 1998 general election in US)