August 14, 2007

Nevada: Putting the Lid on Ballot Initiatives?

Since the rise of the "direct democracy" movement in the early 20th century, the use of ballot initiatives and referenda has spread like wildfire around the nation-- for better or for worse. It's prompted questions (although probably not enough) about what sort of policy issues ought to be decided via direct democracy rather than by elected representatives.

And now, in Nevada, it's prompting interesting and vital questions about whether proponents of a ballot initiative should be able to show a baseline level of statewide support for an proposal before it's put on the ballot. What's prompted this debate, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Sean Whalley tells us, is a new law that does just that:
The law requires people to gather a set number of signatures in each of Nevada's 17 counties based on the population of each county to qualify a measure for the ballot. In the last election cycle, all the signatures needed could be collected in just one urban county.
The idea behind such a reform is that urban and rural interests in Nevada are likely to diverge radically in a way that might make it easy for urban taxpayers to gang up on rural taxpayers. To bring it home to tax policy: a proposed "Proposition 13" style property tax cap could have dramatically different impacts on different areas of a state-- so, the logic of this idea goes, people who are affected in very different ways should all have to show at least a modicum of support for such an idea to ensure that an unprincipled regional power grab isn't taking place.

Interestingly, Whalley tells us, this isn't the first time Nevada has tried to implement this sort of rule:
The previous requirement for Nevada petitioners was to collect signatures representing 10 percent of those who voted in the previous general election in 13 of 17 counties.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that requirement, however, saying it violated the constitutional principal of "one man, one vote" by allowing a small number of voters in a sparsely populated county to preempt the wishes of the majority.
Nevada lawmakers have tried to respond to the Court's concerns this time around by applying separate signature requirements for each of the state's counties, and weighting each of the county-specific requirements by the voting population:
The new formula requires signatures to be collected based on 10 percent of Nevadans who voted in the previous general election multiplied by the percentage of a county's share of the statewide population.
To determine the number of signatures required in Clark County, for example, the 10 percent who voted in the 2006 general election totaled 58,627. Multiplied by Clark County's share of the total state population, which is about 69 percent according to the 2000 census, the number of signatures needed in Clark County is 40,364.
Using the same formula for Lincoln County, the 10 percent of the vote in 2006 would be multiplied by .2 percent, the county's share of the state population, making the signature requirement would be 122.
The result is that any ballot initiative must show some baseline level of support in every county around the state.

If this seems anti-democratic, that's because it is--and that's OK by me. Virtually every governmental institution we've got at the federal or state level is designed to take us a step or two away from direct democracy. Remember all that stuff you learned in high school civics about preventing the "tyranny of the majority"? That's a big part of our republican (small R) form of government.

Of course, it's important to have an avenue for regular voters to take their case directly to the people, but it's also important to make sure that any such effort truly has widespread support. And in an age when ballot initiatives have increasingly become a tool of well-heeled corporate interests, this is absolutely a goal for which voters should have some sympathy.

Nevada's latest change to its ballot access rules may not put the ballot back in the hands of the people, as the populist advocates of direct democracy envisioned a century ago, but it will very likely prevent the ballot box from being used as a weapon by one county against another. And it helps ensure that the ballot initiatives that ultimately make it into the polling booth each November will be well-thought-out and defensible.


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