Yes, Hawaii Does Need an Initiative Right

Wed, Feb 3 2010 by Anonymous

Because Hawaiians have no statewide initiative or referendum rights, the Aloha State earned a “D” on our recently released state-by-state report card on initiative and referendum rights. We like to think that the state’s poor performance will prompt action to give the people more of a voice in government by creating an open and accessible initiative process. Unfortunately, at least one talking head in the state doesn’t want the people to have a greater say in their state government.

Honolulu Advertiser political blogger Jerry Burris asks in a recent post “Does Hawaii need an initiative right?”. He correctly states that “The implication of the [state-by-state report is that things could be improved if Hawaii citizens had a unilateral right to propose constitutional amendments, propose new state laws or put enacted laws up to a referendum” but then goes on to say “That’s a debatable premise at best.”

Is it really that debatable? Are people not better off when they have an increased voice in their government and additional avenues to hold elected officials accountable? If Mr. Burris would have done his homework before he posted, he would have known that states where voters have the power to propose laws themselves have higher levels of voter and political participation, more diversity among interest groups, and lower taxes: all good things. He would have also found recent work in political science circles that finds

recent breakthroughs in theory and empirical analysis paint a comparatively positive picture of the initiative and referendum. For example, voters are more competent, and the relationship between money and power in direct democracy is less nefarious, than many observers allege. More new studies show that the mere presence of direct democracy induces sitting legislatures to govern more effectively.

Does anyone not want more competent voters and more effective government?

When people like Mr. Burris, or Missouri Rep. Mike Parson, or Ohio Rep. Jennifer Garrison, or other petty petition preventers are really saying when they make arguments against having an accessible system of voter initiative is that they don’t want the people to have a greater voice in government.

I looked back through some of the other posts tagged “referendum” on Mr. Burris’s blog, and found a few that underscored his anti-voter sentiment. Back in 2008, as citizens in Honolulu were engaged in an effort to bring a proposed light rail project to a referendum, he came out against letting voters have a say, indicating that a “Rail referndum [sic] would be costly, ugly and difficult” and that “the plain fact is that if the proposed rail referendum gets on the ballot and if it is passed rail is dead.” He whines that  ”If [a referendum] goes forward, look for an ugly, very expensive and divisive campaign that will overshadow regular election politics.”

Basically, he doesn’t want voters to have a say on the project, and presumably much else. Far be it for mere voters to disrupt “regular election politics”.

Now, I’ve never been to Honolulu, and I have no idea whether they need a light rail system (according to Ballotpedia, the referendum effort failed to gain enough signatures, partially because of a flaw in the city’s charter). What I do know is that it would be the people of Hawaii and Honolulu who would be footing the bill for the project and dealing with any effects it might have, and those people should have a say in whether the project goes through.

We have a system where elected officials are sent to represent the voters, and if elected officials are really concerned about accurately representing their constituents, they should welcome opportunities to prove the popularity of their proposals by putting them to a popular vote. When elected officials, and talking heads are afraid of letting voters have a say, that in itself is an indication that their policies may be out of line with what their constituents want, and shows an even stronger need to give the voters a voice through an initiative and referendum process.