I got rattled and did a stupid thing in the voting booth yesterday.
I had been unaware of the fact that there would be mock-referendum questions on the GOP primary ballot. So they took me by surprise. (The Democrats had their own questions; I just didn’t see those.)
One of the questions on my ballot. (Sorry about the glare.)
One asked whether unborn children should be protected by due process. The other was about doing away with the state income tax. Well, as you know, my main objection to abortion on demand is that it allows a single individual — and an extremely interested individual, the sort who would have to recuse herself were she a judge or juror in a court — to make a unilateral, irrevocable decision regarding life and death, one from which there is no appeal. So yeah, due process. And the last thing our tax system needs is to be thrown further out of whack by completely eliminating a leg of the three-legged stool.
So, since I was being asked to make a decision now, without further reflection, I said “yes” and “no.”
But I was uncomfortable with both answers, and went out feeling uneasy about them. And the reason why didn’t hit me until I was in the car: I shouldn’t have answered either of them!
I shouldn’t have answered them for two reasons:
- I don’t vote for candidates when I haven’t had the chance to go through a careful discernment process before going to the polls. It is my firm policy to leave those races blank. I refuse to be one of those careless, irresponsible voters who decides on the basis of name recognition or spur-of-the-moment gut feeling. So why would I do any differently with ballot questions?
- This is the big one: I am deeply, profoundly opposed to these gimmicks on primary ballots. There’s no way I should have participated in the farce in any way, shape or form.
First, I do not believe in direct democracy; it’s a terrible way to make important public decisions. Making decisions by plebiscite may not be the worst form of government, but it’s right up there. Or down there.
It’s not that the people are stupid and legislators necessarily wise. It’s the process itself. When you boil an issue down to a “yes” or “no” answer, you have usually oversimplified it, and guaranteed a bad policy decision by ruling out an in-between course. Second, the deliberative process (even though nowadays, with fixed partisan positions, precious little actual deliberation goes on) takes longer than a snap, thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision. A person who has days or weeks to think about an issue while it makes its way through a legislative body has far more time to study the issue, to talk with others about it, and think about it himself, and thereby make a more nuanced decision in the end.
Electing representatives to go through that process is part of the specialization that is a key characteristic of an advanced, modern economy. We are not independent yeoman farmers who produce all we need from our own land (and we weren’t in the late 18th century, despite what Thomas Jefferson may have fantasized). We may be smart people; we may be brain surgeons. But brain surgeons depend on other people to spend time learning to grow their food or build their smartphones or repair their air conditioners or, for that matter, operate on portions of anatomy other than their brains.
Most of us are too busy earning a living to study all the ins and outs and nuances of each issue, or engage in debate with people with differing views on the subject. So we elect people to go spend time doing all those things. They may be no smarter than we are, but that’s their job, and we rely on them to do it, or we elect someone else.
Second, those mock referenda may actually fool a lot of voters into thinking they’re deciding something — that it actually is a plebiscite — when they most emphatically are not. Which is another recipe for making people even more discontented with their government, when they see that what they voted for doesn’t happen.
Third, worse, the opposite can happen — partisans will actually use such ballot results as a guide to how they should vote, even how they must vote (because unfortunately, too few politicians understand that they are supposed to go and study and think and make decisions, rather than vote according to which way the wind is blowing). And you get calcified, immutable positions taken by lawmakers who think they don’t have the right to think for themselves and make a better decision.
That was the case with the most offensive of these mock referenda ever — the question on the 1994 Republican primary ballot asking whether voters wanted to keep the Confederate flag flying atop the State House dome.
It was a purely party-building thing. This was the year of the Angry White Male in national politics, as you will recall, and this was seen as a way to entice said males — those of the “Fergit, Hell!” subgroup — to come out and choose a GOP ballot. It worked — or something did. The AWMs turned out in droves, and of course voted to keep the flag up there.
It you’ll further recall, it was right after that election that the GOP took over the SC House. The election itself almost got them there, then some defections completed the job. This was the year when I had been stirring up unrest against the flag (that year was when I started doing that, as it was my first on the editorial board), so one of the first things the new GOP House did — citing the results of their mock referendum — was push through a bill that put flying the flag into law. Before that, a governor could have gotten up one morning and decided to tell the building maintenance not to raise the flag, and that would have been that (at least, in one optimistic, theoretical scenario). After that, the Legislature would have to act for anything to happen on the flag.
So, yeah, in case you were wondering — it’s not just a matter of violating abstract principles of good government. These things can do actual, long-lasting harm to our state…