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Lloyd Omdahl, Published July 21 2013

Omdahl: Popular vote wins in polling

Founding Father James Madison would turn over in his grave if he knew what the American people were thinking about his premise that legislation should pass through a Congress whose wisdom would determine the public good.

The Gallup polling organization recently found that 68 percent of the people favor a nationwide popular vote on issues if a sufficient number of citizens signed petitions. Republicans, independents and Democrats all gave the proposal strong support.

While a public referendum may seem like a radical proposal in some parts of the country, almost half of the states, North Dakota among them, already provide for amending constitutions, referring legislation and initiating new laws by a direct vote of the people.

Since North Dakota residents were granted these powers in 1914, voters have acted on around 475 measures, half of them put on the ballot through the petition process. The other half was submitted by the Legislature as constitutional amendments.

States adopted these “direct democracy” procedures to bypass unresponsive legislatures. Many of the assemblies had become controlled by special interest groups.

We seem to have a similar problem with Congress today. The people are ready for solutions, but their opinions have little influence in getting the two parties together to solve the issues of the day. Interest groups have unusual influence, made possible by huge campaign contributions.

If a national initiative process were available, citizens could break the Washington gridlock by offering their own solutions. They could do what some people would argue are good things – cut the budget, solve the immigration problem, limit campaign spending, etc.

But they could also do what some people would consider bad things – abolish the farm program, raise carbon emission standards, legalize marijuana, cut Medicare, abolish Medicaid, define new crimes, etc.

It is fairly obvious that these issues would challenge the knowledge and wisdom of the citizenry. Is the public well enough informed to decide each and every important issue that would be placed on a national ballot?

Let’s look at the North Dakota experience.

A review of the decisions made on ballot issues since 1914 suggests that North Dakota voters have been quite responsible through the years. When necessary, they have resisted the easy course – opposed irresponsible tax cuts, defended appropriations, and exercised caution on governmental restructuring.

The initiative and referendum have worked fairly well in North Dakota because we have a high level of citizen involvement and interest in public affairs, a higher level than found in the nation as a whole.

Nationally, we no longer have reliable sources of information. Social media sinks to the lowest common denominator, so we have untrained, self-appointed journalists spreading untruths, rumors and hearsay as the gospel truth.

Newspapers, the most reliable source for objective news, have given way to television. Local television is reliable, but national television is a travesty.

First, we must dismiss the Republican (Fox) and Democratic (MSNBC) networks as subtracting from the total knowledge of humanity every time they are on the air. CNN is not politically motivated but lacks the objectivity and brevity of good journalism. It confuses drama with facts.

The big-three news networks have lost ground in recent years and have compromised their news to keep up with the competition.

Because the civic competence of the North Dakota electorate is higher than that of the nation as a whole, we can handle the responsibilities involved in direct voting.

So even though we are frustrated with gridlock in Washington, it may be preferable to the wild cards involved in national referenda.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com