WHEN WINSTON CHURCHILL suggested in 1945 that a referendum be held to decide whether to extend the all-party government that had led Britain during the war, Clement Attlee was appalled. Referendums, the Labor Party leader spat, were an "instrument of Nazism and fascism."
David Broder doesn't go quite that far. But in a new book, Democracy Derailed, he makes it clear that he regards ballot initiatives -- proposed laws that are submitted to a vote of the people -- as a cancer on American democracy.
The initiative process, he writes, is "alien to the spirit of the Constitution." It is a "favored tool of millionaires and interest groups." It "threatens to challenge or even subvert the American system of government." And that's just on the first page.
Broder is of course a highly respected political journalist, and his book surveys the lively world of ballot campaigns with the careful reporting and amiable tone for which he is known. He reviews the history of initiatives, which grew out of the Progressive and Populist movements around a century ago, and describes in some detail how the "initiative industry" operates today. It is fair to say he doesn't like what he sees.
Ballot campaigns, Broder argues, undermine the republican form of government the founding fathers created. On a vast array of public issues, they bypass the very officials who were elected to make public policy. "Indications" are, he frets, that initiatives can be deployed to hurt minorities. They are peddled to voters in "blitzes of distortion and half-truths." Worst of all, the initiative process allows powerful interests to simply buy the laws they want.
But is any of this really true?
Take the tidal wave of initiatives that Broder says is flooding American ballots. "From 1976 through 1998, the average has been an astonishing 61 initiatives per [election] cycle," he writes. In 1997-98, the number was 66." It is a theme he has pressed in recent columns. "Everyone knows it rains a lot here," he wrote from Oregon in April, "but lately it has been raining ballot initiatives."
Don't reach for your umbrella just yet. On the legislative weather map, ballot issues amount to little more than scattered clouds. To begin with, initiatives aren't even allowed in 26 states. While that leaves 24 that do permit citizen-lawmaking, 56 percent of all ballot activity has occurred in just five: California, Colorado, North Dakota, Arizona, and, yes, Oregon. And even in those states, initiatives generally fail. Most never make it to the ballot; of those that do, most usually go down to defeat.
Consider California, often thought of as a state in which ballot politics is running amok. In the 89 years since California adopted the initiative process, 1,043 ballot measures have been submitted. Only 272 -- 26.1 percent -- qualified for the ballot. Only 87 -- 8.3 percent -- actually became law.
In 1996, when the recent "flood" of initiatives crested, voters in the 24 initiative states considered a total of 102 proposed laws. Of those, 45 passed. "By contrast," says Dane Waters, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington, D.C., "the legislatures in those 24 states adopted over 17,000 laws that same year." Voters may think ill of state legislators, but they are not remotely close to displacing them as the dominant makers of law in America.
Sure, laws passed at the ballot box can be unfair. But for real cruelty and injustice, you need a legislature. (It wasn't ballot activists who segregated Southern drinking fountains.) And sure, campaigns for and against ballot initiatives sometimes resort to deceptive slogans and alarmist ads. The same can be said of every other type of campaign in American politics.
Broder's greatest concern is that special interests with deep pockets will hijack the initiative process for their own purposes, spending whatever it takes to change public policy as they see fit. He writes, for example, about the "well-coordinated and richly financed effort" by three millionaires -- New York financier George Soros, Cleveland insurance executive Peter Lewis, and Phoenix businessman John Sperling -- to legalize the medical use of marijuana. That effort met with spectacular success; of the five "medical marijuana" initiatives on state ballots in 1998, five carried.
It would indeed be cause for worry if initiatives, which were born of an effort to combat the political clout of the wealthy and well-connected, were now routinely exploited by rich insiders for their own purposes. But they aren't. Political scientist Elisabeth Gerber, surveying 168 ballot campaigns in eight states, concluded that economic interest groups "are severely limited in their ability to pass new laws by initiative." Only 31 percent of intiatives backed chiefly by special interests passed, while those put forward by broad-based citizen groups succeeded 50 percent of the time.
In California, the disadvantage is even more lopsided: Forty percent of all initiatives on the ballot in 1986-96 were adopted -- but only 14 percent of initiatives promoted by wealthy interests. The pattern is the same in other states.
"Democracy derailed?" On the contrary, ballot measures keep democracy on track. Representative government is not always representative. When legislatures refuse to heed the voters, initiatives can set them straight.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)