Opinion: The Case for Avoiding Direct Democracy
This opinion piece was written by Annalisa Mueller-Eberstein and does not directly reflect the beliefs of the Washington Bus or Washington Bus Education Fund.
Annalisa Mueller-Eberstein (she/her) was a Washington Bus Fall 2020 Intern and is currently enrolled as an undergraduate student at the University of Washington planning to pursue dual degrees in Materials Science Engineering and International Affairs. Originally from Kirkland, WA, Annalisa has a passion for working with the environment and her local community—volunteering with and participating in organizations to help achieve her goals. Outside of work and school she enjoys playing with wires, rollerblading, and watching YouTube.
How much research do you really do into the candidates on your ballot? Now, how much do you do into the advisory votes, plebiscites, and referendums? When you see a phrase like “shall King County Charter Section 895 concerning mandatory inquests be amended,” how much do you really understand? (King County Charter Amendment 1). Research into candidates is already difficult to initiate, research into the processes of inquests (judicial inquiries) and taxes regarding heavy machinery is even more difficult with its classically boring subject matter and lack of human connection.
Fun fact, Napoleon was made emperor by a plebiscite in 1804. A plebiscite (pleh-buh-sait), also referred to as a referendum, initiative, or public vote, is defined as a vote by which the people of an entire country or district express an opinion for or against a proposal. Here are the practices in Washington (plebiscites mentioned from the 2020 ballot):
- Referendums: laws put on the ballot for the people by the legistors
- Referendum 90: statewide vote on whether or not Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5395 mandating comprehensive sexual education should be implemented
- Propositions: mainly concern funding for public projects like transit or schools
- Seattle Proposition #1: concerns increasing funding for transit
- Initiatives: issues directly put on the ballot by the people
- Amendments: directly impact the rules governing a state, county, or region
- King County Charter Amendment #5; vote on whether the Sheriff will be an elected official again rather than chosen by the County Council
- Advisory Votes: requires any tax or fee increase that’s passed to appear in the voters’ pamphlet and on the November General Election ballot
- A result of a Tim Eyman initiative several years ago
- Basically a public opinion poll that costs the state and counties more than $500,000 each election
One’s first instinct is usually to try to spend less money which means it is natural for one to instinctually vote to repeal any new taxes they see on the ballot, as evidenced by the fact that every advisory vote on the Washington statewide ballot in 2020 received a majority vote to ‘repeal’ rather than ‘maintain’. Part of the issue is that people do not read into the voter pamphlet or explanatory statements. Another issue is that even if they do, they may not completely understand what is written or the description may leave out something vital. For example, initially, I thought the state funds referred to in the proposed Constitutional Amendment on the Washington State ballot would only be invested in government bonds and general funds; however, the actual text allows for investment in specific private stocks as well, relying on the general upward trend of the stock market to cancel out any economic downturns.
The Founding Fathers made the case to avoid uneducated voters, and I have to agree that representative democracy is favorable to direct democracy where expert opinions are overlooked in favor of political agendas or misinformation. I realize in today’s political climate, expert opinions are often disregarded, but one issue at a time. This situation is not unique to Washington State or even the United States.. In Australia, for example, in 2017, the question of whether Australia would support same-sex marriage was put to the people as part of a mailed national survey. This begs the question, why are some people’s rights up for election? If no single group of people should be explicitly targeted in politics in general, no group’s rights should be put up to the general public to decide on. That is just so sus.
Direct democracy has its place in hearing the people’s opinion, and the fact that the road is open for motivated citizens to put something on the ballot is good; however, one must avoid becoming too reliant on furthering popular sovereignty rather than implementing needed change. If a school needs more money to rebuild and provide supplies to students, a majority vote shouldn’t be able to prevent that. Also, plebiscites have an unfortunate connection to authoritarian regimes trying to legitimize their regime. This comes from the fact that many authoritarian leaders will substitute an opposition party by pretending to give power to the people to voice dissent or enact change.
Remember Napoleon’s ‘election’ in 1804? Records show he won 99 percent of the vote, but some sources also show that there was doctoring of the votes in the army and one has to wonder what would happen to those who voted no, especially after witnessing the destruction and death in the French Revolution. Either way, with 99 percent of the one million voters behind him, Napoleon could show that he was unanimously supported and begin consolidating power into his office. A more recent, yet still slightly suspicious situation occurred in Crimea in 2014 where the official result was a 96.77 percent vote for integration of the region into the Russian Federation with an 83.1 percent voter turnout while previous polls indicated support levels of between 30 and 45 percent.