10.05.10 Who Wants Candy?
This is cross-posted with the Washington Post’s All Opinions are Local.
Last week, the Maryland Court of Appeals did the right thing and reinstated a November referendum to let voters decide whether Montgomery County should impose fees for use of county ambulances.
“Right thing?” you ask. Is Your Blogger in favor of more referenda and scrapping the fees? Far from it! But Your Blogger recognizes an injustice done and is in favor of having it rectified.
Let’s start at the top. Government by referendum is a terrible idea, any association with the Swiss Alps and California Dreamin’ notwithstanding. There are few matters of policy that are simple enough to reduce to yes vs. no or for voters to get the full implications of. Since voters are relatively (or, in this country, extremely) ignorant and ill-suited to prioritizing the greater good over their own, referenda are a field day for snake-oil sales. Add to that the utter lack of campaign-funding restraints in the United States, and tiny minorities flush with cash can purchase the results they want from ballot initiatives.
Even in a well-educated country such as Switzerland, the vulnerability of referenda to fear-based populism showed up in the national vote against the construction of minarets a year ago. In California, the exceptionally low threshold for getting initiatives onto the ballot has paralyzed the government, pretty much destroying policymakers’ ability to balance competing interests and make financially rational decisions. Referenda turn out to be government for the monied in populism’s flashy clothing.
So count me glad that Maryland and Montgomery County don’t make it easy to get your pet cause on the ballot. It takes a great deal of organization and hard work to gather the required number of signatures, as it should. These hurdles mean that any successful proponents of policymaking at the ballot box have to have proven substantial interest in their cause: Thousands or tens of thousands have to be willing to pardon unexpected interruption at the door or on the street and sign qualifying petitions.
Now, about those signatures. It would seem reasonable that they have to be traceable to registered voters. But Maryland law, as affirmed in a court decision a couple of years ago, is so convoluted as to disallow any signature not recorded on a day beginning with W and written with your non-dominant hand. Okay, I’m exaggerating a wee bit – they require you only to sign your name legibly and in exactly the same way you printed your name on your voter registration card five or 10 or 50 years ago. Right! (My signature would be invalid: I don’t use a middle initial in my printed name but do in my signature. And good luck discerning any actual letters in that scrawl.) So, two attempts to get initiatives on the MoCo ballot this year – one for repealing ambulance feels and the other to impose term limits – had massive proportions of their signatures declared invalid.
If it’s the intent of the law to eliminate all referenda, then go ahead and make them illegal. But to allow them while making good-faith efforts to bring them about utterly impossible is a giant ripoff guaranteed to alienate activists and voters.
As for the ambulance fee, it’s a poster child for bad referenda. It’s like shouting, “Who wants to give up candy?” in a room of kids (or adults, for that matter), without mentioning cavities or obesity. Volunteer firefighters and their supporters now have a great chance to continue the demagoguery they have used throughout their petition drive, scaring the wits out of people who are worried about being charged for a trip to the hospital. Think the well-funded repeal campaign is going to mention potential trade-offs such as larger classroom sizes or fewer cops on the beat? Think they’ll care to point out that the odds of any county resident actually paying a penny out of pocket for the fee are near zero?
Of course not! Because those are nuances. Referenda are all about easy, black-and-white decisions. They never deal with the hard choices that we elect representatives to listen to hours of testimony from both sides and then figure out. They never mention mitigating factors. “Get your free candy and your democracy without pain!” shout the carnival barkers. And the suckers fall for it over and over again.
The ambulance fee is going to be repealed, and $14 million of other cuts are coming to make up for the lost revenue. But they just might not be cuts that voters would prefer over the fee.
Here’s hoping you don’t have to be a lawyer to figure out whether a registered voter’s signed name is valid. Here’s also hoping Maryland doubles the number of signatures required to put crazy ideas on the ballot.
©2010 Keith Berner