Direct Democracy is Under Attack

President Trump may not be able to say it, but it’s all but undeniable at this point that the Russian government attacked American democracy during the 2016 election. While the Russia story might get all of the mainstream news coverage, there’s another, more insidious assault on our democracy underway, and this one’s coming from within.

Across the country, ballot initiatives– one of the only ways for citizens to directly participate in the democratic process– are being overturned or blocked by government officials beholden to special interests. This goes against everything our country was founded upon, and if left unchecked, will only get worse. At a time when the vast majority of the American people believe (rightly) that their elected officials care more about their donors than their constituents, we can’t throw away one of the few ways citizens have of directly influencing our country’s laws.

Apparently, the DC Council disagrees. Recently, the majority of Councilmembers worked to repeal the will of the people in favor of corporate interests. Initiative 77, which would phase out the tipped minimum wage until it matched the regular minimum wage of $15/hr, was bitterly contested by restaurateurs and their lobbying group, the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which gave $150,000 to contest the wage increase. As we all know now, the opposition lost at the ballot box, with 55% of voters supporting the initiative. However, 8 members of the DC Council, each of whom represent wards that voted “yes,” decided to push for a repeal of the initiative.  

They argued, among other things, that voters did not understand the question and that having the vote during a primary election was inappropriate. These councilmembers, unsurprisingly, have not questioned the validity of their own elections. Their capitulation to corporate interests is particularly disappointing; as being representatives of the people of the District, they should know better than anyone how unjust it is for another group to overturn the results of a free and fair democratic process. Residents of the District are used to Congress lording over them with the ability to veto any laws passed by the Council, but now they’ve been undermined by the people who are supposed to represent them as well.

Even Massachusetts is not immune to anti-democratic maneuvering. Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected a ballot question which would have instituted an additional 4% tax on incomes over $1,000,000. Called the Fair Share Amendment, the Court ruled was unconstitutional because it involved two different subjects, both taxing and spending. For the people of Massachusetts, this is a major blow. Despite the ballot initiative polling well and on track to gain majority support if voted on, legislators in both chambers of the state government have not chosen to appropriately tax millionaires within the state. Seemingly, it is because they are too afraid of angering their donors. In a true democracy, politicians would consider the wishes of all voters equally.

If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that the citizens’ power at the ballot box can be as weak and ineffective as our government wants it to be. There is no incentive to follow the will of the people, or any guarantee that elected officials will act on campaign promises as, once in office, incumbents have a huge advantage over challengers. Ballot initiatives, therefore, are the one way for voters to not only be heard directly, but take the lead in the legislative process. Unlike Massachusetts, DC voters have a greater need for ballot initiatives to remain a staple of the public policy process. We already are unable to truly participate in our federal government via representative democracy. We do not need to be ignored further, and yet the City Council has done just that.

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