Whilst I was checking out the results of the USA Congressional elections, I also had a look at the result of what the USA often calls ‘ballot measures’ – that is referendum questions on a wide range of specific issues.
By coincidence, the state of Missouri (also the location of one of the 2 critical undecided Senate contests) had a ballot asking people whether they supported legalizing stem cell research and therapies consistent with federal law. This is a bit different to what is addressed in the legislation that just passed the Australian Senate, but the vote was about as close – 51% in favour to 49% against out of more than 2 million votes.
At least 7 different states had proposals to ban same sex marriage, all but one of which succeeded. There were also 6 states who conducted ballots to increase the minimum wage (all successful), and 3 that proposed various forms of legalizing marijuana (all failed). One ballot proposal which received wide attention was a referendum in South Dakota proposing to almost totally ban abortion – it failed 45% to 55%.
I know some people are uneasy about Citizens Initiated Referenda because of its potential to allow exploitation of and unfair discrimination against minorities, but I think it could work well with adequate safeguards (like an overarching legislative Charter of Rights which referendum proposals could not be inconsistent with). Another possible protection would be to enable Parliament to still be able to legislate to overturn a vote. I know it has its risks, but so does any form of decision making.
I am concerned at how low the level of public engagement is in our political process – something which I think is getting worse and which I don’t think troubles most governments. Mechanisms like CIR would make more people engage with issues of interest to them and provide more encouragement for them to realise that they can have a direct impact on the broader political process.
Have a look at this page for a sample of more of the ballot measures put to voters in various states in the USA. This page also has some more background.
UPDATED 9/11: I just noticed another interesting initiative. In the state of Nevada, in both the Senate race and the contest for Governor, voters got the option to vote for “None of these.” I’m actually surprised how low this vote is, particularly in the Senate race which was never going to be close. I suppose with voluntary voting, most people who don’t like any candidate just don’t bother voting.