It's not enough any more for voters to just decide who will do their deciding for them. Now they have to decide the issues of the day too.
In addition to giving a nod to the incumbent or throwing the rascal out, this Tuesday area voters are expected to decide on an array of initiatives and ballot questions. These proposals are generally well-intentioned and not without merit, but they undermine good representative government and muck up the American form of democracy.
I didn't always feel like this. A decade ago in California, I was delighted to learn that I could vote not only for my state legislator but for actual legislation. Those were halcyon days for the fast-growing cottage industry of initiatives sponsored by voters who lacked faith in the people they had elected.
In 1978, tax crusaders Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis turned California on its ear with Proposition 13, which nearly every California politician opposed but which voters passed by a 2-to-1 margin. This citizens' revolt slashed property taxes but also siphoned billions of dollars out of funds for public health, safety, education and transportation. Just as important, it began an electoral revolution as dozens of privately drafted resolutions followed it onto the ballot.
My sense that something might be amiss with initiative process came some years later, when the ill-effects of Prop. 13 became clear. By 1978 classroom size in California was the highest in the nation, and funding for clogged, aging highways was the lowest. Even worse, the initiative had been discovered by the very people it was intended to thwart: special interests and politicians.
In November of 1988, the last time I voted in California, I was confronted with 29 statewide ballot questions and a dozen more city and county questions. To help voters make an informed decision, the state prepared a pamphlet with hundreds of pages of sometimes incomprehensible explanations full of technical terms and legalese and often dubious pro and con arguments for each question. Most of these issues should have been resolved in Sacramento, but elected representatives had so far abandoned their responsibility to make hard choices that they themselves sponsored many of the measures.
I thought I was leaving this nonsense behind when I moved to the Washington area. I was wrong. Things Californian have a way of spreading east even as the nation's population packs up and moves west.
Washington embraced the voter initiative in the 1973 home rule charter, and this year's Referendum 005 is instructive of the mischief such initiatives can wreak. Referendum 005 would restore the city's right-to-shelter law, thereby overturning the amendment to the law that the elected members of the D.C. Council passed and the mayor approved. Officials, who are already hamstrung by congressional interference in city finances, don't need the added burden of being forced to fund one program at the expense of all others.
Across the District line, Montgomery County is being haunted by the ghosts of Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis. Four scions of Prop 13 -- Questions F, G, H and I -- propose various contradictory ways to burden the county charter with tax-cap amendments. Each would slap financial handcuffs on the county council. If incompatible measures should pass, the process will go to the courts, further undermining representative government.
Amazingly, one of the measures -- Question F -- is backed by four council members. Are they trying to tell voters that they can't be trusted to set an equitable tax rate while ensuring needed programs are funded? Is it perhaps a cry for help: "Stop me before I spend again!"
This Tuesday, voters will be facing more than just candidates and ballot questions. At issue will be whether they accept the principle of representative government: Voters don't decide the issues; they decide who will decide. -- Michael C. Mahoney is a member of the editorial page staff.