This November, we’ll be voting on whether to add two amendments to the state constitution of 1965 — the transportation “lockbox” and protections for state-owned land. If you haven’t heard of this before now, you’re not alone.
I hate referendums, I really do. I believe they’re way more trouble than they’re worth. For every state that votes to legalize pot or enact ranked-choice voting, there’s 10 more that do dumb stuff like outlawing same-sex marriage or completely blowing up the tax system. They can, in states and municipalities where groups can place questions on the ballot by petition, be poorly written and poorly thought out.
Referendums can also be a way for a majority to legalize their bigotry. The same-sex marriage amendments of the mid-2000s did just that, and so is a ballot question in liberal Massachusetts this year that could end up severely restricting transgender rights. It makes me queasy when the majority gets to decide the rights of a minority.
Ballot initiative referendums set up a parallel legislative avenue, which leads to all kinds of confusion. Can the legislature vote down something the voters approve? Can voters overturn laws the legislature passes and the governor signs? Is the true will of the people expressed by electing representatives or by voting in referendums?
If the latter, then why don’t we all just vote on everything?
Oh God, just thinking about that makes my head hurt. Imagine putting state employee contracts to a vote of the entire public of the state of Connecticut, or imagine trying to pass an actual budget. It would be hell.
Here’s an example of how it can all go wrong. My own town of Enfield held a referendum not long ago about renovating the town’s sole middle school. The town council got the best deal they could, and included much-needed upgrades that students and parents were begging for. This is a middle school that is falling apart and has had modular classrooms sitting outside it for literally decades. The public would barely have felt the effect.
The electors of the town, in their wisdom, voted it down. Why? Because the town would be spending money on a thing and the usual cranks didn’t like that. The middle school remains in disrepair.
Constitutional amendments are somewhat different from ballot initiatives, and that’s usually a good thing. Amendments to Connecticut’s constitution go through a long process in the legislature where they have to either be approved by a supermajority of both houses in a single session, or by a simple majority in two consecutive full sessions (i.e., the ones that happen every other year) in order to be on the ballot.
The public can still mess this up, though. In 2014 an amendment to the constitution appeared on the ballot that would have allowed the legislature to reform voting. That would have allowed us to have important things like early voting and no-fault absentee voting. The amendment was something the Secretary of the State’s office had been working on for years as part of a way to modernize our elections.
It was defeated. I’m still not sure why. It could be that the country was in this phase where a large percentage of people voted things down and elected horrible people to high office just to show everybody how mad they were about government. That amendment would have let the darn government do things, so, bam. Down it went.
I’m worried that will happen again this year, which is bad because these amendments are also very important.
The first creates that transportation lockbox everyone has said they’ve wanted since forever. It will keep the legislature from dipping a big rubber hose into transportation money and sucking out as much as they can for other things. This has to happen before we can even think about fixing transportation.
The second would make it a lot harder for the state to sell or transfer land it owns to others. This one matters because state lands, including state parks, are part of our heritage. It should be hard to sell them, and it should be something that the legislature can’t do in a hurry to raise a quick buck.
If we must have referendums, let’s at least vote in favor of the obvious ones that make sense. If we don’t, then when bridges fall down and state lands get sold to condo developers, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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