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is no need to go the initiative route for special interests to be heard. Even if a law to benefit the few were put to a public vote, it would almost assuredly fail without broad support from respected community leaders and political leaders.
The fourth argument is that "our Founding Fathers never meant the people to vote on issues. People aren't supposed to decide directly."
Looking back through history, you will notice that the right for women and blacks to vote was left out of the first Constitution, as were many other present-day rights. Furthermore, our Nation has a strong tradition of the people voting on issues. From taxes to bond issues to school budgets, cities and States decide issues by popular vote. Nearly all the States consider State constitutional amendments to important to approve without the safeguard of a public vote. In fact, I think it is 49 out of 50 States that require a vote for constitutional amendment.
The fifth argument against it is that "voter initiative will undermine our representative system."
In fact, voter initiative will strengthen our system by injecting it with greater accountability and citizen participation. With the further check and balance of the public proposing and enacting their own laws, our elected officials will begin to represent the people more accurately and responsively. State-level initiative drives often spur action by the legislature as a compromise to replace a public vote on the issue.
The sixth and last argument is that "administering it is impossible. Nationwide petitions couldn't be processed and validated, and national balloting on issues would be too difficult."
We hear this over and over again. I think we will hear it throughout the testimony. It will be said that it is a good idea but you really cannot begin to do this on a national level: it is administratively unworkable.
Though it is true that new procedures will have to be set up, this is not an insurmountable problem. It is somewhat absurd to argue that we can put a man on the moon and we can get national election results within 4 hours after the polls close, but that we can't validate a Federal petition. Certainly, nationwide petitioning and voting can be administered with some careful planning, just as statewide procedures have been established and work smoothly.
The great benefits of the voter initiative process become apparent after a review of State initiative use. In the 20th century, initiative has unquestionably put vitality into Government.
Initiative America notes from its research that our present-day Presidential preference primary system was born by a 1910 initiative in Oregon. Other States followed the lead of Oregon's voters.
On that point, I think it is interesting to note that critics of the process, and I think justifiably so, initially exercise real caution. Isn't the initiative going to be used on really frivolous measures, et cetera? In fact, we see that our present method of selecting our Presidential candidates is rooted in an initiative in 1910 in Oregon. That, I think, signifies the seriousness of issues successfully addressed by this process.
Women's suffrage was pioneered in many States by initiative. Direct election of U.S. Senators, abolition of the poll tax, old age pensions, and workmen's compensation were early reforms accomplished at the State level by initiative. The Missouri plan for nonpartisan appointment of judges was passed by initiative in the 1940s. Initiative was also used to create Nebraska's unicameral legislature, the only legislature in the country that has such a provision.
More recently, citizen voter initiatives have addressed such important issues as the death penalty, sale of handguns, coastal protection, preservation of family farms, political conflict of interest laws, campaign disclosure laws, State spending and taxes, fluoridation of water supplies, returnable bottles, legislative salaries, and energy policy.
No one can honestly argue that those issues are unimportant or frivolous.
State voter initiatives have addressed a tremendous diversity of issues. The history of citizen-lawmaking speaks for itself as an integral part of State decisionmaking, even in a large, complex State such as California, which has a very large State budget as well. Many landmark reforms have been instigated by initiative. Other issues which were sidestepped or ignored by legislative bodies were finally settled by popular vote with initiative.
Voter initiative is a good, democratic process. Initiative America believes that the voter initiative amendment will weather the discussions, the debates, and the predictions of catastrophe. Ultimately, the decision to ratify this amendment must be based on trust-trust that the American people have the right and the ability to make decisions for themselves when they deem it necessary.
Mr. MURRAY. Thank you, Roger.
What kind of procedure do citizen groups go through to put something on the ballot? Is it typical that they consult with a lot of people or deal with legislators in a State?
Mr. TELSCHOW. I think there is a myth that people will sit down over an evening's coffee and decide to put an issue on the ballot, and then will draft their law and go out the next morning collecting signatures. It doesn't happen that way.
What is usually the case is that a measure taken up by initiative is one with an extensive legislative history and one that has already had a lot of public discussion and has gone through pretty extensive drafting by the legislature and/or other attorneys.
The citizens' process is usually to put together a petition or to put together a law which they think is a reasonable compromise, one which they think will gain enough political support. Then they print petitions and collect the signatures. When the issue is put on the ballot, they go out and wage an educational campaign in favor of their proposal.
The same process would be followed at the Federal level, although I think we could expect that issues dealt with by Federal petition would probably undergo even greater scrutiny and have an even longer legislative history in the Congress.
Mr. MURRAY. So you would think that an issue that comes up on an initiative proposal would be one that had been discussed in Congress for a number of years previously?
Mr. TELSCHOW. Yes, the kind of thing that a number of people are in favor of and which has already received a lot of debate publicly and in Congress, and there just seems to be no other recourse to congressional inaction. If there are enough people who want to put the issue to a vote, then they would be able to go out and collect the signatures.
I think just pulling an issue out of the blue and deciding that you want to put it on the national ballot would be impossible.
Mr. MURRAY. John, did you wish to comment?
Mr. FORSTER. I would like to make the comment that the availability of a national initiative would bring people into a very positive framework, thinking about their Government. I am sure that Congress would see many national voter initiatives started. People would be realizing that this would be their court of last resort.
I think what we see at the State level is that many people start an initiative petition only to find that the legislature later acts and passes some version of what they wanted. This would be even more true federally. With the tremendous number of signatures required to bring a Federal proposal before voters, you can be sure that it would serve to raise the issue before Congress. Congress would many times pass the sort of law that would cause a lot of the backers of the petition to stop petitioning.
As Roger said very well earlier, a national bill as proposed by Senate Joint Resolution 67 would require 3 percent of the registered voters who last voted for President in each State. That is about equal to a 4 percent requirement in a State where it is computed on the number of people who voted for Governor in each State. For that actually to happen I think is a rather incredible thing. Maybe one out of every 100 issues started would get to the ballot.
Mr. MURRAY. All three of you have been in a number of initiative campaigns before. What kind of effort is required to get 3 percent or 2.5 million people's signatures? I think most people generally are not familiar with how difficult it is to collect signatures.
Mr. TELSCHOW. It is important to make a distinction between collecting signatures of support, in which the person would not necessarily have to be a registered voter or a resident of the State, and a legal petition, which people have to sign. They have to make sure they are a registered voter. There are many opportunities for them to sign incorrectly, using an old address or using "Mrs. John Smith” instead of "Mary Smith," et cetera.
You are talking about a process that is very formalized-one that requires quite a bit of scrutiny when you go out to collect signatures. A lot of citizen efforts are unsuccessful because they did not collect enough signatures over the minimum requirement. It is important to note, when talking about the Federal requirement, that though the minimum figure will be 2.5 million signatures in Senate Joint Resolution 67, citizens would likely have to collect 4 or 5 million signatures to allow for those invalidated when the signatures are checked. That's a drive of major proportion that would involve a
tremendous amount of man-hours and a very concerted effort that would undoubtedly have to reach into over half of the States at the very minimum.
Mr. MURRAY. Two ideas that have been mentioned here today are, one, allowing for the referendum procedure also and, two, allowing Congress a certain amount of time to act on a proposal on which the people are collecting signatures. What would you think of either or both of those?
Mr. TELSCHOW. We have not been pushing the referendum proposal as a separate consideration. At the State level referendum is usually put to a special ballot. Our feeling was that that would probably be unworkable at the Federal level. However, I think we would favor the type of referendum which would allow repeal or amendment of Congressional acts but that would have to be done at a general election. That is our initial feeling, but we are certainly open to looking at that.
The other thing is that we certainly would favor some means of recall but I do not think at this point we are interested in pursuing that. I think that is something that should be considered. It may get some interest from other Congresspeople at a later point.
Mr. HARRINGTON. Regarding the other question about going to Congress, it would involve perhaps adjustment of our time frame. We had provided for a new electon within 120 days of the petition being certified. If you are talking about 35 legislative days, you may be talking about moving that back another 2 months. Rather than certifying your petition as of the first Tuesday in July to coincide with the first-Tuesday-in-November election, you are talking about moving that up maybe to the first Tuesday in May. There would be an additional 60 days. The 180-day period for collecting signatures would still be valid but your filing deadline maybe would have to be adjusted.
As long as it did not avoid the issue and the vote for another 2 years, there really could not be a fundamental objection as long as it moved in a timely fashion and did not unnecessarily postpone an ultimate vote.
Mr. MURRAY. I do not think any of us would want to see it postponed for 2 or 3 years, as you mentioned.
I would like to thank all of you. Is there anything else you would like to say?
Mr. HARRINGTON. I would only add one comment. I am from Washington State. Professor Bachrach talked about the lack of initiatives on poverty issues. We had four initiatives on the ballot this year. Clearly two of those originated from poverty interests. One was the family farming initiative to restrict public water through irrigation to farms larger than 2,000 acres owned by corporations. This was an attempt to keep family property in farming, particularly in eastern Washington which raises the best apples in the world and a lot of other produce which we depend upon throughout the country. The bushel-per-acre quota does go down under corporate ownership as opposed to family ownership.
Second, there was an initiative to take the sales tax off of food purchased at the stores. That had a financial impact of $170 million
per year, which is fairly significant. It was an initiative raised by poor groups, coalition of those kinds of interests, and was approved by the voters.
Another initiative which dealt with cutting taxes was defeated, so I do not think there is a knee-jerk reaction to just voting down taxes if they are proposed.
Also, in two cases poverty interests were reflected by voter support when originated and promoted by poor interests. I think the record indicates a much more interesting history of the initiative process for a variety of political portions of the society, not just a doctrinaire approach just by leaders or by people who have access to political
I think the record offered by the Library of Congress on each State would be very good. I think people would be well served to take the time to look through that record.
Mr. MURRAY. I think it is clear that low income groups or minority groups would have an opportunity to present their side of the case through gathering signatures and having a national debate on an issue, whereas in Congress they do not often get heard.
Mr. TELSCHOW. I think these hearings are terrifically significant because this amendment was just introduced in July. I remember hearing that there was going to be no conceivable chance that these would be heard in the Subcommittee on the Constitution this year. I think the wave of media coverage of the issue, the tremendous flood of letters that came in after the introduction, and the continuing interest by national columnists and political leaders really caused these hearings to happen. I am delighted that they did. I think we have really begun a national discussion on placing enough trust with the American people to let them enact some of the laws.
We are going to see this next year, as well as in the next couple of years, the voter initiative becoming a significant political issue. Initiative America will do the best it can to get to candidates and convince them that this should be part of their platform. It is something that is very pro-people. It is a right that has worked extremely well over the past 70 years in the States. It has never been taken away where it has been authorized. It is something that is really going to be popular with the American public. I think we are going to be seeing a lot more of it.
Mr. MURRAY. I want to thank the three of you as well as all the other witnesses who appeared before the subcommittee today.
The subcommittee will meet again tomorrow morning at 10 o'clock in this room. The hearing will be in recess until that time. [The prepared statement of Mr. Telschow follows:]
PREPARED STATEMENT OF ROGER TELSCHOW, CO-DIRECTOR, INITIATIVE AMERICA. The 23 states which authorize voter initiative have an outstanding record of citizen-made law. The process has been used with restraint, with citizens enacting only about 500 state laws in 80 years' of usage in all the states. The following is a sample listing of issues dealt with by initiative at the state level. It was compiled by Initiative America researchers from state records. The importance of the issues addressed indicates potential national issues which might be addressed under the Voter Initiative Amendment.