On June 7, the New York State Senate passed S709, which proposes a change to the New York State Constitution. It would create the initiative process in New York, for statewide laws, and also for local government. The vote was 47-15. All of the “no” votes were Democrats.Voter initiatives and ballot propositions are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they allow voters to implement reforms that lawmakers are unwilling or hesitant to support out of narrow self-interest or political cowardice, ex. independent redistricting reform or rational reform of drug laws. On the other hand, however, the initiative process can be hijacked against the public interest since all it requires is that one have enough money to gather signatures and wage an aggressive media advertising campaign in favor of a given measure. For a critical view on the initiative process, see the lengthy essay on the historical use and abuse of voter initiatives and ballot propositions in California from the April edition of the Economist – for a thumbnail sketch, see this CAIVN article from a few weeks ago.
Now the bill goes to the Assembly. If it passes there, because it is a proposed constitutional change, it must pass both houses of the legislature again in 2013. Then the voters would decide in November 2014 whether to pass the idea.
The statewide initiative is a gateway for virtually any election law reform that has popular support. If New York state had the initiative process, the voters could probably qualify a proposed initiative for redistricting reform, or ballot access reform, or reform of the restrictive laws that don’t permit voters to switch parties before a primary unless they make the switch during the year before the election. It will be interesting to see if Independent Voting, formerly known as the Committee for a Unified Independent Party, and before that the New Alliance Party, will support S709. That group is very well organized in New York city. Virtually all the “no” votes in the Senate were New York city Senators. The bill would require a statewide initiative to obtain a number of signatures equal to 5% of the last vote for Governor. Currently that number is 232,709.
Despite the potential risks, shouldn't we support any measure which puts more power in the hands of citizens and voters over and against professional politicians and entrenched party interests?