We The People: A Case for Eliminating Referenda
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 15:09
Recently, during one of my classes in Smith’s government department, the day’s conversation turned away from a theoretical discussion about the general system of government in the United States and toward a real-world question about the role of voter referenda in making policy decisions. Specifically, the conversation revolved around the four states – Minnesota, Maine, Maryland, and Washington – whose ballots will contain questions pertaining to same-sex marriage come November.
Smith is an incredibly sympathetic audience when it comes to LGBT issues and topics; as such, the tone in the room remained respectful and thoughtful throughout the conversation, even as several of my classmates argued that a voter referendum is a morally permissible way in which to decide on the rights conferred, or not, onto a minority group. Still, the conversation made me antsy: growing up gay in a big, devoutly Irish-Catholic family is a surefire way to become defensive whenever the topic of LGBT rights comes up in mixed company.
Listening to several of my classmates arguing in favor of referenda on same-sex marriage, asserting that voters have the right to check their elected officials’ power within a democracy, I silently fell into line with those in the room who spoke up in opposition to that sentiment, fervently and passionately arguing that a person’s rights should never fall prey to a vote. Their argument deeply resonated with me: a simple majority should never have the ability to dictate the rights and privileges of a harmless minority. I nodded along with the theoretical underpinnings of their rights-and-identity-based arguments, not verbally involving myself for fear of being overly sensitive or just plain repetitive.
And then, I was overcome with an insuppressible urge to challenge the oft-repeated assertion that voters should, by means of referenda, have the right to check the decisions made by their elected officials. Such a case makes sense, in the context of a democracy like ours, where The People are meant to have a strong voice in their government. As that argument goes, if our elected officials aren’t doing the work we sent them to the Capitol to do, then we should have the right to affirm or deny the policy decisions they make – especially on sensitive and controversial social issues – by means of voter initiatives on our ballots each year.
Although I had always accepted that argument as a necessity of democracy, I was suddenly livid at the thought of its perpetuation. The framers of the nation’s Constitution spent years crafting an incredibly well-considered system of checks and balances built to ensure that, should one branch of the government make a mistake that runs contrary to the Constitution or to the rights and needs of The People, one of the other branches can step in and, with equal power, shut down the decision or act in question.
The system is clearly far from perfect, as demonstrated by the various civil rights struggles of the last 200 plus years fought within it, but it has proven itself to be one of the most effective governments ever devised. In choosing to affirm its authority each and every day via obeying laws, paying taxes, and otherwise participating in the perpetuation of its power, We The People are nonverbally consenting to its sovereignty and saying that, per the very basis of representative democracy, our elected officials are our trusted mouthpieces.
That, then, is where my sudden, visceral reaction to voter referenda was born: what is the point of our government if we don’t trust it to make the most appropriate decisions at the most appropriate times? Why do we bother having a system of checks and balances if we are still going to challenge – and try to change – the decisions that come out on the other side? And how can we justify the very existence of our elected officials if, each year, we can simply overturn their decisions from the safety of a tiny curtained box on a cold November morning?
In choosing to send elected officials to Washington, each of us is choosing to grant ultimate authority to a handful of fellow citizens. In surrendering our individual power to others in that way, we are agreeing to trust the decisions that come from the Capital and to follow the laws and policies established there. The concept of a referendum – on any issue, whether it relates to others’ rights or not – defies the entire system and stops our elected officials from doing the job we have asked them to do. Such an act of defiance is a threat to the strength and effectiveness of our imperfect-but-still-enviable democratic system: we can’t have it both ways.
A referendum on same-sex marriage is an offensive affront to my rights – not only as a member of the gay community, but also as an American citizen. More distressingly, however, it is a slap in the face to our elected officials and to the carefully checked-and-balanced system in which they serve. In the name of individual dignity and collective strength, we ought not to allow such a blow to the American framework that protects us from governmental tyranny and societal anarchy.