Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve May, of Richmond, who is a Progressive/Democratic candidate for the Chittenden-1 seat in the Vermont House. He is also an individual member of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana and a licensed independent clinical social worker in private practice in Burlington where he works around addiction issues with people in recovery and their families.
Participatory democracy has been a cornerstone of the Vermont political experience dating to an age before statehood. Ten generations of Vermonters have done as we have every March — coming together as a community in meetinghouses and school gymnasiums for the purpose of sitting in community and addressing the issues of the day. Town Meeting Day is special; it affirms the basic principal of one person, one vote and celebrates a public discourse around decision-making and policy.
Earlier this spring, Speaker Shap Smith in the middle of the cannabis debate called for an advisory question on the ballot. While non-binding, assessing the mood of the state in a referendum in not without merit. This would have represented the first time since 1980 that the non-binding referendum would have been invoked by the Legislature in this way.
Smith’s proposal while mired in the midst of marijuana politics begs a more fundamental question. Twenty-four states have some version of initiative and referendum, including Massachusetts and Maine. Vermont does not. Citizens should have the opportunity to petition and put a question before the public provided it meets certain thresholds for popular support. Citizen legislators and a people-driven politics are core to our identity as Vermonters.
If the Legislature were aware that the public could act to enact laws which were politically popular but materially different from their policy preferences would that external pressure lead to more thoughtful legislating?
The cannabis debate this year is instructive in pointing out exactly why initiative and referendum would be useful tool for civic engagement. While both the House and the Senate were prepared to pass something that they each would have called “cannabis reform or legalization” the actual bills that they supported were vastly different and ultimately no consensus was available. In the states that have passed some version of cannabis legalization, it has been the product of an effort driven by grassroots movements. Legislative bodies by their very nature are deliberative and endorse consensus, they seldom move ahead of their constituents and forge consensus.
According to the nonpartisan Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), “Over the past 25 years, states with the ballot initiative process have had higher voter participation than states without the process. On average, each statewide initiative on the ballot increased a state’s turnout by almost 1% in presidential elections and almost 2% in midterm elections, holding constant other state demographic information (high school graduation rates, region, racial diversity), economic (income) and political (voter registration laws, US Senate and gubernatorial races) factors.” (K. Wilfore, The Impact of the Ballot Initiative Process in America)
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Based on the finding of BISC it is fair to say that voter participation should increase in a post initiative and referendum Vermont. The state and its citizens would be well served by adopting an initiative and referendum law, it would lead to greater voter engagement and, in turn, higher voter turnout, it would also empower members of the public to participate more fully in our democratic process.
Just as important, adoption of an initiative and referendum would make certain that we avoid the kind of loggerhead we witnessed this year in Montpelier. If the Legislature were aware that the public could act to enact laws which were politically popular but materially different from their policy preferences would that external pressure lead to more thoughtful legislating? Quite possibly …
Finally, this kind of decision-making is very much in keeping with the Vermont tradition of participatory government and citizen legislators. Vermonters have a long tradition of scrutinizing every line of the town budget, fighting over whether to appropriate money for the town library and when exactly one should replace the highway department truck. The nuances of policy making are not lost on our neighbors. In fact, anyone attending a town meeting knows how sober a responsibility it is and can speak to the seriousness with which policy matters are addressed. Vermonters are uniquely qualified to be able to weather the serious and sober work of addressing policy questions on a ballot paper. If Vermonters are able to handle the ins and outs of municipal finance, they ought to be able to handle most any policy question thrown their way. It would serve the Legislature well to advance an initiative and referendum bill which would serve to create an apparatus for policy making through ballot question and share the responsibility for legislating with voters beyond the chambers in Montpelier.