Thursday, November 14, 2019

Should We Have The Ballot Initiative In Wisconsin? Yes — But With Some Added Rules

A proposal to introduce the ballot initiative in Wisconsin should come with some added safeguards. 

Three Democrats in the state legislature are proposing an amendment to Wisconsin's Constitution that would allow voters the opportunity to write their own laws.

The measure will likely die in the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate. But it brings about a valid question: should the voter initiative be brought to Wisconsin?

The proposal by Reps. David Crowley and Gary Hebl, as well as Sen. Dave Hansen, would create a multi-step process in order to produce a voter-led ballot initiative. First, for any proposed law, a citizens' group would have to get signatures equaling 5 percent of the total number of ballots cast in the previous Secretary of State election — which is no easy task, amounting to hundreds of thousands of signatures based off the last statewide race.

Next, after signatures are verified for the question being considered, it would be put to the voters to decide. With a majority vote, however, the proposed law wouldn't be put on the books quite yet: it would then go to the current session of the state legislature to consider. If the legislature passes the proposal, the governor would also have to sign the bill in order for it to become law.

If the legislature and governor DON'T approve of the proposed law, it's not necessarily dead quite yet: the measure goes back to the electorate in the following election cycle, where the people vote on it again. If the measure passes the ballot a second time, it becomes law.

It may surprise you to learn, but I'm personally against simpler versions of ballot initiatives. While I generally trust the electorate to be informed, it doesn't mean that the voters make the right choices every time. Indeed, that's one of the dangers of democracy, and representative government helps protect against so-called "mob rule."

Perhaps I'm a bit paranoid, but I recall the 2006 Constitutional amendment that limited marriage rights in the state to being solely between a man and a woman. Two sessions of the state legislature passed that law, but a statewide referendum cemented it into our state's highest governing document. I would hate for anything similar to be passed into law again, particularly through a ballot measure during a low-turnout election year.

That being said, the proposal put forward by the three Democrats named above seems to address that point, at least in part. If the citizenry likes a proposal, but it doesn't protect the rights of a certain group of people, for example, it can "checked" against by a state legislature or governor who can ensure encroachments are defeated.

I like the spirit of what Crowley, Hebl, and Hansen have put forward, but I would change one thing: if the measure goes back to the people to vote upon for a second time, it should require a super-majority of the electorate to overrule the "vetoes" of the legislature and the governor, perhaps three-fifths concurrence from the people to make it a law. And then, if the legislature still thinks it's a law worth overriding, it should require an equal number — three-fifths of a quorum in both houses — to kill the measure again.

A ballot measure for Wisconsin would be great for a number of reasons. It would allow citizens a chance to bypass the ill effects of partisan gerrymandering, by suggesting laws that the state legislature ordinarily wouldn't consider, particularly those with overwhelming support.

But it has to be done the right way. A citizen-led ballot initiative can be a double-edged sword — it can produce great good, but it can also result in populist agendas that do harm to marginalized communities.

Crowley, Hebl, and Hansen have produced an idea of a ballot initiative that seeks to address that possibility. It just needs to be tweaked a tiny bit more.

Featured image credit: Jeff Dean/WikimediaCGP Grey/Flickr

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