’Direct democracy’ should be used sparingly

The right of Americans to exercise the power of initiative, referendum and recall is as old as our republic. It is sacred and belongs in our federal and state constitutions.

Initiative is a power reserved to voters to propose legislation by gathering enough petition signatures to get a question on the ballot. Referendum allows the voters, by petition, to demand the reconsideration and repeal of legislative action. Recall is well-known, especially at the local level. It allows voters, by petition, to call for an election aimed at ousting an elected official.

Sometimes referred to as “direct democracy,” the above are basic options, but they can also be disruptive and divisive.

Accordingly, we are not among those who are disappointed that issues regarding health care reform and gambling won’t be on the Michigan ballot in the autumn. These topics are among those usually best dealt with by lawmakers in Washington and Lansing and, if necessary, by the courts.

Opponents of the federal health care law, proposed by the Obama administration and passed by Congress this past March (after a protracted legislative battle fought largely on party lines), could not even come close to getting the issue on the Michigan ballot.

Apparently, most Michigan citizens prefer that the health care reform issue be dealt with by Congress. Proponents of a proposition to let state voters have their say on the new law failed miserably in their petition drive They obtained only about 150,000 of the 380,000 signatures required to make the November ballot.

There will be plenty of time for Michiganians and their fellow Americans to make their views known about health care. Their first opportunity will be on Nov. 2 when all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and a third of the 100 U.S. Senate seats will be up for grabs. We expect a vigorous campaign in the next few months. Many politicians who backed Obama have their political necks on the line. Thus, it will be incumbent on the Obama administration to convince the electorate that its version of health care reform takes the right approach.

If the Democrats lose control of Congress this fall and Obama is not re-elected in 2012, the entire issue could go back to the drawing board.

As to the gambling issue, two separate petition drives for ballot issues allowing voters to decide whether to expand gambling by opening new casinos in several more Michigan cities also failed.

Two proposals did make the ballot. One is for voters to decide whether to rewrite Michigan’s present Constitution of 1963. That question is automatically placed on the ballot every 16 years and voters have turned it down each time.

Our strong preference for changing our state Constitution is to amend it when appropriate. Going to the trouble and expense of calling a convention to rewrite the entire document simply makes no sense in Michigan today. We have far too many other challenges facing us.

The other issue that made the ballot has some merit. Voters will decide on a proposal to ban public officials convicted of felonies related to their jobs from holding office for 20 years. Much of the impetus for that petition drive resulted from the scandal involving former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

In short, the most appropriate time for voters to decide on the issues of the time is at regularly scheduled elections. Although it’s important to have the option of employing “direct democracy,” that process should be used sparingly and only under extraordinary circumstances.