State referendums increase direct democracy, making National Popular Vote more likely

Last week, Maine held a referendum on vaccinations and is likely to have another statewide, popular vote this year.

The National Popular Vote is gaining momentum and could lead to a majority of all American voters having a direct role in picking the president in 2024.

Democracy comes in two styles: direct and representative.

The U.S. has been a representative democracy from the outset.  That’s what the concept of a “republic” meant to the drafters of the Constitution.  They worried that the citizens might be enflamed by momentary passions and make unwise decisions, while their representatives would be more careful.

But states could go their own way.  Some already had direct democracy in the form of the Town Meeting in which the voters of a New England town act as its legislature.  It has survived and, in Maine, the Town Meeting season is just getting under way.

Gradually, the U.S has been moving toward greater direct democracy.  Almost all states use referendums proposed by legislatures to allow the people to make decisions.  Many states also allow initiatives in which people can propose laws or try to veto laws passed by their legislatures.  In Maine, initiatives greatly exceed pure referendums.

Referendum and initiative reflect the growth of popular democracy.  The rules adopted by the founders have been changed.  The Constitution now requires direct election of U.S. senators rather than their selection by state legislatures.  The right to vote was expanded to include members of all races, women, and young Americans.

For the first time, the entire country might find itself able to act through direct democracy.  Electing the president by a majority vote of the entire country could replace the current state-by-state voting for president.  Its adoption depends on favorable action by as few as seven more states, including Maine, where it nearly passed.

Meanwhile, state referendums are increasing.  In Maine, six petitions are now authorized for circulation and possible placement on the ballot in addition to the disputed CMP Corridor veto, which has been found to have sufficient signatures.

There’s some opposition to more popular democracy.  Critics believe the issues are too complicated for a simple up-or-down vote by average citizens.  That means the Legislature may second-guess a popular decision.  That could sound like continued distrust of average people.

But it is likely that many legislators don’t know the details of the laws they pass.  Do members of Congress understand the terms of a 1,000 page tax law?  Do Maine legislators know all the line items of the state budget?  Lawmaking is left to a few legislators and staffers, distant from even representative democracy.

Occasionally, a referendum becomes necessary when the Legislature cannot decide on an issue, so it passes the buck.  It has sent matters, ranging from a Lewiston casino proposal (disapproved) to increasing the minimum wage (approved), out to the voters.

The only country where popular democracy is the normal way of doing much government business is Switzerland.  People there vote several times a year on specific proposals.  Recently they have considered federal taxing powers and allowing insurance companies to use private detectives.  Both passed.

But there is a caution.  The recent UK referendum on Brexit, held in a country with no tradition of direct democracy, left the country unable to reconsider its decision as more facts became known.

The system should permit a change in popular thinking, based on new facts.  The people should have the possibility of a new vote, either through elections or a new referendum.

Some critics say that it is too easy to get an initiative on the ballot.  In Maine, the number of petition signers depends on the number of people who voted for governor.  The state has high turnouts, so the number seems reasonable, though it could be tied to presidential elections.

Another aspect of the issue is geographical distribution.  Should a certain percentage of the voters in each congressional district be required to launch an initiative or pass it?  No such a requirement exists for votes of the Legislature, so why should it apply to the voters, the ultimate legislature?

States with the Town Meeting form of government should be comfortable with popular legislating.  Where jurisdictions are small, like Switzerland or Maine, popular democracy can work.

Popular democracy results from a better informed electorate, thanks to wider access to the media.  And it ensures the principle of one-person, one-vote.  Increased use by states is likely to continue.

With a national forum having been created by the media and statewide direct elections now widely accepted and used, a national presidential popular election may also make sense.  Its time seems to be coming.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.