The Far Left’s War on Direct Democracy

John Fund, Wall Street Journal, July 26, 2008

The initiative is a reform born out of the Progressive Era, when there was general agreement that powerful interests had too much influence over legislators. It was adopted by most states in the Midwest and West, including Ohio and California. It was largely rejected by Eastern states, which were dominated by political machines, and in the South, where Jim Crow legislators feared giving more power to ordinary people.

But more power to ordinary people remains unpopular in some quarters, and nothing illustrates the war on the initiative more than the reaction to Ward Connerly’s measures to ban racial quotas and preferences. The former University of California regent has convinced three liberal states—California, Washington and Michigan—to approve race-neutral government policies in public hiring, contracting and university admissions. He also prodded Florida lawmakers into passing such a law. This year his American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI) aimed to make the ballot in five more states. But thanks to strong-arm tactics, the initiative has only made the ballot in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska.

“The key to defeating the initiative is to keep it off the ballot in the first place,” says Donna Stern, Midwest director for the Detroit-based By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). “That’s the only way we’re going to win.” Her group’s name certainly describes the tactics that are being used to thwart Mr. Connerly.

Aggressive legal challenges have bordered on the absurd, going so far as to claim that a blank line on one petition was a “duplicate” of another blank line on another petition and thus evidence of fraud. In Missouri, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan completely rewrote the initiative’s ballot summary to portray it in a negative light. By the time courts ruled she had overstepped her authority, there wasn’t enough time to collect sufficient signatures.

Those who did circulate petitions faced bizarre obstacles. In Kansas City, a petitioner was arrested for collecting signatures outside of a public library. Officials finally allowed petitioners a table inside the library but forbade them to talk. In Nebraska, a group in favor of racial preferences ran a radio ad that warned that those who signed the “deceptive” petition “could be at risk for identity theft, robbery, and much worse.”

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The police had to be called when BAMN blocked the entrance of a Phoenix office where circulators had to deliver their petitions. {snip}

But BAMN proudly posts videos on its success in scaring away voters, or convincing circulators to hand over their petitions to its shock troops. “If you give me your signatures, we’ll leave you alone,” says a BAMN volunteer on one tape to someone who’s earning money by circulating several different petitions.

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The war against citizen initiatives has other fronts. This year in Michigan, taxpayer groups tried to recall House Speaker Andy Dillon after he pushed through a 12% increase in the state income tax. But petitioners collecting the necessary 8,724 signatures in his suburban Detroit district were set upon. In Redford, police union members held a rally backing Mr. Dillon and would alert blockers to the location of recall petitioners. Outsiders would then surround petitioners and potential signers, using threatening language.

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Some judges think the “blocking” of signature gatherers has gone too far. In 2006, Nevada Judge Sally Loehrers decreed a “civility zone” that barred opposing sides from coming within arms’ length of each other at petition signing sites. “The blockers were off the streets within two days,” says Paul Jacob, the head of Citizens in Charge, which promotes the initiative process.

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