Popular democracy can be bad government

Ballot initiatives are often championed as a “check” by the people, for the people. A taste of direct democracy to offset an unresponsive legislature or city government. In Utah, initiatives have brought down a flawed plan for school vouchers, attempted to ensure independence in redistricting (Fair Boundaries) and ethics (UEG), and greatly influenced popular election changes (Count My Vote). But are they a good way to govern?

Popular democracy can be bad government
by Jason Williams (no, that’s not Jason; that’s Don Imus, but we knew you wouldn’t know the difference)

While the 2007 fight over vouchers stands as positive example of voters rejecting a legislative process, if not the idea of school vouchers in general, UEG’s ethics initiative was sloppy, rendering a noble idea to an angry ransom note veiled by legalese. Prop 1 — seeing mixed results from the 17 counties who put it on the ballot this week — was the result of quantified need presented to lawmakers for transportation funding, kicked down to counties. If additional funding is important, why not just do what’s necessary, as representatives hired to do exactly that? The Utah Senate got that. The House, with more immediate re-election concerns, contrived a plan that became Prop 1. Is this “letting the voters decide,” or passing the buck heading into an election year? Are we going to now let voters decide every issue that impacts the pocketbooks directly?

Imagine it. Utah County residents would be on fire, underwater, and driving through their own sewage within a week!

In “It’s Time for Cities to Ditch Ballot Box Planning,” The Atlantic’s City Lab describes three examples of direct democracy in action from this election cycle.

  • Boulder, CO: Ballot Issues #300 and #301. These initiatives would’ve handed city zoning and planning decisions over to neighborhood citizen councils, with every neighborhood trying to out-NIMBY each other.
  • San Francisco, CA: Propositions F and I. These initiatives, known by locals as the anti (or pro, if you were against it) AIRBNB initiatives, would’ve imposed strict restrictions on short-term rentals in direct contradiction of state hotel laws, and put a moratorium on new development, indefinitely.
  • Houston, TX: Proposition 1, extending non-discrimination protections to sexual orientation and gender identity.

All three failed. The Boulder and San Francisco measures illustrate well that immediate, narrow concerns of residents, NIMBYism, and even class confrontations result in direct democracy movements that fail to account for long-term planning the way a long-term planning and zoning commission more often will. The Houston measure is an example of how a publicly popular policy can fall victim to emotional, clever campaigning in a ballot initiative process. Supporters felt city decision makers weren’t moving fast enough and opted for ballot initiative. Opponents painted the measure with a ridiculous “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms” trans-phobic message. Would waiting a year for the issue to percolate through the council and Mayor’s office have met with success?

Whether its long-term planning concerns, or an issue ripe with emotional support and opposition, the increasing frequency of “governing” at the municipal level via ballot box and moneyed campaigns has the potential to render cities the decision-making body equivalent of a newspaper website comments section. In these three examples you can understand the volatility — both in their design and in the campaigns for and against them — of ballot measures with long-term consequences.

Or as City Lab puts it, less “true voice of the people,” and more “self-destruct button.” And while the impact is often more immediate and severe at the municipal level, state-wide measures can do as much damage. See 1994’s Proposition 187 in California (h/t Beau). City Lab:

Politics as usual, right? Except that ballot measures turn planning decisions into election campaigns. Instead of expertise and data, narrative and emotional appeals (and money!) are brought to bear on complex decisions about technical issues like land-use policies and zoning. These are issues that most voters have little familiarity with. And it’s not their fault. In a representative democracy, voters select leaders whose job it is to familiarize themselves with zoning rules, planning priorities, and other issues and make decisions about them. The system works, when it works.

“But freedom!” some critics might object. Government is slow, whereas direct democracy is speedy and access to information is getting better. Still, the public already has a say in planning decisions: first through the vote, and then through the public-feedback mechanisms that almost always accompany zoning changes. People with strong and considered opinions on policies manage to find ways to influence political outcomes without necessarily reverting to irrevocable ballot-measure decision-making.

Ballot initiatives are an important part of political mechanisms, and watching the debate over Medicaid expansion in Utah the last three years, you can’t argue the legislative process is always informed or even always cognizant of the most broad concerns. But over-reliance on direct democracy processes for decisions with long-term ramifications might be even worse.


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