Ballot-Box Populism

Capturing Barack Obama’s old Senate seat, retiring his party’s Senate majority leader, and exiling Nancy Pelosi to the minority are scalps Republicans seek to collect election night. Watch for an even more direct, but overlooked, slap by the people against the President’s policies. 

Nearly three-fourths of the states pose 155 ballot questions to voters this November. Save for California’s proposition to legalize marijuana, the measures have not commanded national attention. But amidst late-night poll watching of neck-and-neck races in Nevada, Washington, California, and elsewhere, the educated politico will keep an eye on the returns of a few key propositions. 

Many ballot questions are interesting conversation pieces but of little import beyond their jurisdictions. The Ocean State, officially “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” decides whether to, like Cher, Madonna, and other divas denying their roots, drop its last name. Oklahoma—perhaps seeking to avoid the fate of other dusty, oil-rich polities—curiously votes to prohibit judges from consulting Sharia law. 

But numerous propositions set the policies of the 44th President directly in their sights even as they tackle local concerns. 

In Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah voters can cross-check “card check” by codifying the secret ballot for union elections. Oklahomans, Arizonans, and Coloradans vote to liberate individuals from Obama’s commandment to buy health insurance. Illinois, still reeling over Rod Blagojevich’s scheme to auction off Obama’s vacated Senate seat, puts just one question before voters, empowering the people to recall governors. California’s Prop 23 rescinds a law against greenhouse-gases that has made Golden State businessmen see red over less green in their bank accounts.  

About a quarter of the ballot questions involve taxes. Several federal taxes, including taxes on inheritance, investment, the highest earners, are scheduled to rise on January 1. Through numerous initiatives and referenda, citizens can vote themselves a tax cut.  

In Taxachusetts, where commerce flees over the border to sales-tax-free New Hampshire, Question Three reduces the sales tax from 6.25% to 3%. Question One is a showdown between two institutions that help define the region: drinking and taxes. It repeals the recently instituted application of sales taxes to alcohol, whose levies hidden within the price actually makes the sales tax a tax upon a tax. Amidst advertisements for sales on Budweiser 30-packs and handles of Absolut Vodka, signs urging patrons to “Vote Yes on Question One” appear in liquor-store windows throughout the state. 

Virginia proposes the most imaginative ballot question on taxes. Given the struggles of so many pensioners to afford to grow old in the same house in which they raised their children, the Commonwealth considers a property tax exemption for seniors. 

Washington, one of just nine states without an income tax, is the battleground for perhaps the most important tax battle. Pro-tax Initiative 1098 would create an income tax, targeting at first only the most productive earners, and then (if history is any clue) more and more Average Joes. Anti-tax Initiative 1053 reinstitutes a law jettisoned by money-hungry legislators requiring two-thirds approval for tax hikes. 

Liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, looking back at the unintended consequences of the establishment of the initiative and referenda around the turn of the last century, noted that “the more ardent reformers who expected that the public will, once expressed directly, would bring a radical transformation of the old order were surprised to find voters exercising their prerogative in the most conservative way, rejecting, for instance, proposals for municipal ownership, the single tax, and pensions for city employees.”  

It is as it was. Leftists forever imagine themselves the instruments of the people’s will (even when the people vigorously rebuff these efforts on their behalf) and their enemies as tools of Rockefellers or Kochs (the billionaire boogeyman varies by decade). They are grassroots; their opponents, Astroturf. Initiatives and referenda, like spontaneous uprisings such as the Tea Party, act as a periodic reality check on such delusions. Populism in America has usually meant thwarting the Left’s schemes and reasserting limits on government.

In theory, many conservatives regard the initiative and referendum as pure democracy injurious to the republican government bequeathed by the Founders. Conversely, many liberals imagine direct democracy unleashing a populist will that ensures their will would be done. 

In practice, ballot questions, from California’s Proposition 13 acting as the dress rehearsal for the tax-cutting 1980s to gay marriage initiatives uniformly reflecting public disapproval, have disproportionately furthered the aims of the Right. 

There is no reason to think this fall will be any different.