The Maryland Public Policy Institute
Should Marylanders have the chance to initiate laws by petition and recall elected officials? With the recent activity to get two (and possibly three) referenda on the ballot this November and the flurry of news about the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election, some in the state are asking this question. Would Maryland benefit by more direct democracy?
I’m of a mixed mind on these issues. I see both sides. I share the fears of the Founding Fathers over direct democracy. I like living in a representative republic that limits the powers of the government. However, I know from experience that sometimes those people we elect don’t make the right choices and having the tools of the initiative, referendum, and recall are good ways to fix some problems in the system.
I’m originally from the West, where the “direct democracy” ethos is a lot more widespread than in the East. In the state I grew up in, voters could initiate legislation, they could hold referenda on legislation they didn’t like, they could recall elected officials, and they even voted on every capital budget project (and the resulting property tax increase). We had ballot measures on every election ballot of one sort or another.
In Maryland, it’s not that way. The ballot measures that do appear are generally the result of elected officials placing them on the ballot. As the Maryland Reporter notes, because of technology this may be changing. The two referenda that are going to be on the ballot this year were the result of citizen action.
Because of the success of these two petition drives for referenda, some in the General Assembly are trying to make it more difficult for future referenda to get on the ballot. It’s ironic that these efforts are generally led by so-called “progressive” legislators, since the concept of initiative and referendum spring from the Progressive Era.
In fact, this brings up another irony: an invention of the Progressive Era that was designed to help people enact liberal policies over the objection of entrenched conservative interests has, instead, been primarily used to advance conservative political causes. In Maryland, for instance, this Progressive Era tool is being used to overturn gay marriage and tuition breaks for illegal immigrants. In other states, initiative and referenda have been used to impose term limits, enact spending and tax limitations, and end affirmative action. In generally, they aren’t used to advance liberal ideas.
That is probably what explains the move on the state level to limit, not expand, these tools of direct democracy. While there are excellent Progressive reasons to support them – “power to the people” and all – in the end the people use their power to support conservative policies.
Would Maryland be a better state if we had initiative and recall? Maybe, maybe not. There is certainly a fear that more direct democracy could lead to more bad policies. But considering the poor policies enacted at the state level by professional policymakers, I find it difficult to conclude that the voters would make worse decisions. Maybe it’s time to give Maryland voters a few more tools to enact their preferences.
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