Lloyd Omdahl, Published August 19 2012
Ordinary citizens have toolControversial initiated measures will stimulate voter turnout for the November general election as five proposals are likely to be placed on the ballot by Secretary of State Al Jaeger.
North Dakota residents have had the initiative process in its current form since 1914. The idea, a product of the Progressive movement, was adopted in response to rampant graft and corruption in state legislatures across the country.
Believing that citizens were sufficiently informed and competent to pass their own laws, the Progressives managed to get almost half of the states to adopt the initiative. They also added the authority to refer legislation and to recall executives.
North Dakotans were sympathetic to these Progressive planks. For one thing, many remembered the 1893 scandal involving widespread bribery of state legislators by sponsors of the Louisiana Lottery seeking permission to operate in North Dakota.
The lottery advocates managed to get their measure passed by two-thirds of the state Senate before their plot was exposed by a Pinkerton detective hired by Gov. John Miller.
The initiative process changes the whole decision-making ballgame. It substitutes the deliberative processes of the Legislature in favor of sloganeering and the demagoguery of street politics. It exploits the limited knowledge of the ordinary citizen about public issues and offers simplistic answers to complex issues.
The initiated measure defeated in the June primary proposing to abolish the property tax is a good example.
While many citizens may be gullible prey, legislatures are not always oracles of wisdom and good judgment. The handling of the Sioux logo controversy in the last session proves that point.
The initiative process has always been seen as a tool for the ordinary citizen. This idea was violated when it became known that several of the organizations proposing measures had obtained signatures through hired solicitors. While the move was relatively harmless on this occasion, it augurs ill for the initiative and referendum in the future. If this practice continues, it could evolve into a system controlled more by money than by citizens. This has happened in California, where money has become a major factor in such campaigns.
While half of the states have denied themselves choices, North Dakotans have the option of going to the Legislature or going to the people with their proposals. Usually, the initiative method is used to bypass the scrutiny or hostility of the Legislature.
One measure on the November ballot would outlaw smoking in all public places. Sponsors of this measure are going straight to the people with this issue because the Legislature has a track record of hostility to the regulation of smoking.
Another measure on the ballot would legalize “medical” marijuana. This 6,400-word proposal is probably the longest measure ever filed in the 98-year history of the initiative. This is on the ballot because the subject is too hot for the Legislature to handle and would be greeted coolly, to say the least.
A coalition of natural resource supporters is proposing a constitutional amendment that would appropriate 5 percent of the oil money ($85 million yearly) for a variety of unidentified outdoor projects.
The sponsors accuse the state of failing to address the preservation of natural resources so “this measure has been written to ensure that the will of the voters is not subverted by the Legislature …”
In the final analysis, the initiative process says that we are as dubious of government with representation as we are of government with kings.
Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email firstname.lastname@example.org