Politics

Does the Popular Vote Matter?

While some states offer extra protection for statutes enacted by popular vote, legislatures can still overturn ballot initiatives in most states.
by | May 2011

What do renewable energy, minimum wage levels and dog breeding have in common? They are all addressed by state laws, approved through ballot initiatives and now subject to revision or reversal by the Missouri Legislature.

"I feel like we are in a situation where the Legislature is increasingly willing to overturn the will of the voters," says state Sen. Jolie Justus. "The reality is that the changes […] are actually gutting the intent of what voters meant to do."

Justus, who says she’s not a huge fan of ballot initiatives, still finds it surprising that conservatives -- who have often complained about "activist judges" overturning the popular will -- are so willing to do the same thing through the legislative process.

While some states offer extra protection for statutes enacted by popular vote -- California’s Legislature can only amend such laws by sending them back to the voters, and Arizona needs three-fourths of the legislative vote to approve any changes -- in most states, they’re fair game. "In Washington state in the last year or so, they had to temporarily suspend a couple of voter-initiated measures having to do with teacher pay and class size to save a billion dollars," says Jennie Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "There’s a fundamental flaw in that way of lawmaking, in that we’re asking people to make decisions in a vacuum. Of course, small class sizes are good, but how do those decisions fit into the budget?"

Proposals in both New Mexico and Montana to repeal voter-approved medical marijuana laws may have stalled this year, but the Missouri Legislature is showing little hesitation in going after a wide range of targets. Justus suggests this is because there has been a surprising lack of political blowback following efforts in recent years to roll back initiatives regarding regulations on campaign finance and carrying concealed weapons.

Even supporters of the so-called puppy mill initiative, which imposes stricter regulations on commercial dog breeding operations, recognize that legislators may succeed in upending the initiative. That measure prevailed in November because citizens in St. Louis, Kansas City and their respective suburbs outvoted the rest of the state. It was defeated in 103 out of Missouri’s 114 counties.

"They really are going against the will of the people in repealing the entire thing," says Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. "But a lot of them campaigned on this issue. They found it a good issue for rural legislators. They pretty much have to do a repeal."

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