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Direct Democracy Lost in Florida and Colorado
Monday, 13 November 2006 04:22
by Joel S. Hirschhorn

With all the hoopla about the big Democratic win, little attention has been given to the assault on direct democracy. Sadly, Florida voters caved in and passed Amendment 3 that requires 60 percent to pass ballot initiatives instead of the present simple majority. What should be viewed as one of the great ironies of all times is that this amendment passed by a statewide vote of 57.8 percent to 42.2 percent. That’s right; this terrible amendment would not have passed under the new rule that now has become law!

Michael Mayo, writing in the Sun-Sentinel before the election, noted: “Florida's amendment system has its faults, but it provides a necessary and powerful counterbalance to an aloof, insulated Legislature. Raising the amendment bar would only make it harder for citizens to flex their muscle. And that's exactly what the politicians and big businesses want. This amendment was put on the ballot by the Legislature, not a petition drive. … If [Amendment 3] passes, democracy in Florida loses.”

Libertarian, liberal and conservative groups and the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor opposed the amendment, but were no match for corporate money.

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Some $3.2 million was spent by corporate interests to deceive the public and put a major dent in direct democracy. The sole purpose of making it more difficult to pass ballot initiatives - that in the soggy state of Florida amend the constitution– was to maintain the influence of lobbyists on a largely corrupt state legislature. Big land development, agriculture and insurance companies wanted to retain the status quo when it comes to throwing money at legislators to get what they want. Their thinking was that citizen groups would be less inclined to launch ballot initiatives with the higher requirement for passage. In the past, citizen driven ballot measures were used to correct bad state laws or to pass ones that the corrupt legislature refused to pass.

The current effort by the Florida Hometown Democracy group to pass a ballot measure that would grant citizens much more control over land development in this sprawl-crazed state was a key factor in causing both the legislature and corporate interests to mount the Amendment 3 campaign.

Presently, there are close to 50 ballot measures in the pipeline for the 2008 ballot. Corporate interests hope that many will now be abandoned because of the new requirement.

Interestingly, in 2002 two important ballot measures passed by just 59 percent; one put a cap on school class size and the other required universal pre-kindergarten classes. The 2004 amendment that raised the minimum wage also did not get 60 percent. Since 1992, only 10 of 18 citizen initiatives have passed with more than a 60 percent margin.

As Brent Batten wisely concluded in the Naples News: “The process of allowing the public to pass law via majority vote provided a safety valve against lobbyist-fueled legislative intransigence.” The same can be said for all state legislatures and, even more importantly, the U.S. Congress. This is why many people would like a federal law that would give all American citizens the opportunity to vote on national ballot initiatives. Imagine that: giving we the people the opportunity to correct the corrupt actions of our Senators and Representatives. In the long run, that might be the best way to fight corporate and special interest corruption in Washington, DC.

What has happened in Florida should be of considerable interest to all Americans, because corporate interests may attempt to pull off a similar con job in other states that permit citizen-driven ballot initiatives, one of the few and most potent forms of direct democracy in the nation. Indeed, proof that expanding direct democracy faces increasing opposition is that Colorado voters just rejected Petition Rights Amendment 38 by a vote of 69 percent to 31 percent.

It would have expanded and simplified citizens' ability to put proposed changes in state and local laws on the ballot. Proponents of the amendment raised less than $1,000. Opponents raised over $300,000 for TV ads; much of the money came from home builders and other corporate interests.

Here is what an official with the Chamber of Commerce said in favor of the Colorado amendment: “We have to have representative government; that's the form we've chosen, and we don't want to get hurt by people with special interests.'" What audacity! That view from a major business special interest that wants to keep its hold over elected legislators. Similarly, an official with the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry said: “We support representative government and a more thoughtful way of solving complex problems." More thoughtful? Apparently meaning the thought that goes into deciding how much money to spend on legislators to get what they want.

In contrast, Dennis Polhill in support of the amendment observed: “The establishment despises petitions because it fears the people's voice. Petitions allow governmental reforms, just what politicians, lobbyists and special interests fear. Petitions provide checks and balances that make government more representative. That's good.”

The passion among voters to move power from one major party to the other should be expanded to restore American democracy, something that mainstream politicians do not talk about. A key need is to expand, not shrink, opportunities for direct democracy. It respects the collective wisdom of we the people and provides a crucial way to offset failed representative democracy. Better than being bipartisan, direct democracy is non-partisan or perhaps anti-partisan.

That corporate interests are working so hard to curb direct democracy should be all that is necessary to motivate Americans to expand it. It is a vital way to give power to the people.

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