Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Initiative Measures of Insanity

The ballots in the State of Washington for this November's national elections will include three initiative measures. I took my first hard look at the three of them this weekend, after receiving my voters' pamphlet from the state.

All three initiatives make me very sad.

The initiative process itself bothers me. Why go through the effort of ensuring we have a representative form of government with careful assignments of authority and subject to regular election if we reserve for the people the right to overrule the government with a simple majority?

The presence of an initiative process would seem to dilute the seriousness of the elected government. Why should our elected representatives work hard to make the laws sound and reasonable when the people can write any rule they want into law themselves?

Initiatives would also seem likely to radicalize the government. As the use of the initiative process flourishes, the voters would begin to realize that it really doesn’t matter too much who gets elected (we can just overwrite the laws they pass!)  The politicians won’t need to tap into the pool of politically moderate voters to win elections, so they need not temper their messages or build compromises.

I like the idea of reserving for the people the ability to override their government when it goes astray, though. So perhaps an initiative process that would only be valid if sustained by a super-majority or more of the voters. Something that requires a significant uprising of the people to generate change outside of the normal legislative process.

Nonetheless, here we are. The three initiatives in Washington State this year are:

  • I-1351: Changes the allocation of state education funds to school districts and establishes new standards for teacher- and staff-per-student ratios in K-12 schools.
  • I-591: Prohibits the government from confiscating guns without due process and eliminates background checks for gun purchasers unless mandated by federal law
  • I-594: Requires private-party sales or exchanges of guns to complete the transaction with a third-party, licensed gun dealer who would perform a background check on the purchaser.
I-1351 is incredibly complicated, with tiers of funding allocation based on the wealth of the community or grade level or type of program, specific changes to staffing-to-student levels for eleven different class of educational personnel, changes to funding for services and materials, and a detailed schedule mandating when portions of the law must be implemented over a four-year span.

The complexity of the law illustrates why we hire (elect) a representative legislature, in the same way that we might hire a contractor to renovate our kitchen.  We simply can't spare the time and don't have the expertise, so we outsource the task.  This initiative is a great example of minimizing the importance and value of the legislative branch of government.

I-591 is deceptively simple.  I must say I am very attracted to the brevity of the language and that the law restrains the authority of the state as opposed to most laws that impose restraints upon the citizen.

However, on closer inspection it appears that this law will not accomplish much: The government can't legally take property without due process (so if they already were doing so, they wouldn't pay any more attention to this law than existing law...) and it appears our state laws for background checks already align to federal laws requiring the same.

Perhaps the language will protect a citizen gun-owner in some future case... but by using the initiative process, we are just as likely to see an initiative in the future that overrules this one, as the simple majority shifts over time.

I-594 is a great example of the majority attempting to enforce its whims on the minority.  If we were talking about an initiative promoted by white people to exclude black people from education or jobs or similar the people would be up in arms resisting this effort as racist.  This law is a different form of popular vs. unpopular competition, albeit with a similar result: Otherwise law-abiding citizens have their ability to transact business restrained by the power of the state at the behest of an oppressive majority.  The American form of government is supposed to establish a reasonable balance between the power of the majority and the rights and freedom of the minority.  So much for that.

This initiative is also very complicated to execute.  It adds new sections to state law, and revises specific lines and wording of the existing law.  Similar to I-1351, the average citizen, recognizing that they have neither the time nor expertise to consider the implications of these detailed changes, hired their legislators to provide the requisite expertise and debate the issues on their behalf.

I'm inclined to vote no on all three.  We'll see what happens when I crack open the envelope containing my blank ballot in a few weeks.

Perhaps we can start a new initiative to amend the state constitution and require a 3/4ths majority to pass any future initiative measures.  Would be fun to watch the majority vote away its own power in favor of a healthier state government, no?

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