Many Mississippians feel cheated. Having voted overwhelmingly to approve a medical marijuana initiative last November, our state supreme court has now annulled this citizen-led decision.
Worse, by declaring our state’s initiative process ‘unworkable and inoperable’, our supreme court has in effect struck down the only system of direct democracy we had in the Magnolia state.
Irrespective of how you feel about medical marijuana, something has gone badly wrong when 70 percent of people vote for something in good faith, but then have their decision reversed.
The problem isn’t our judges, however, but the process for triggering initiatives in the first place. Under our state constitution (Section 273) a popular vote can take place to amend the constitution only if enough signatures are collected across each of the state’s five congressional districts.
The trouble is that our state only has four congressional districts, not five. Mississippi has only had four congressional districts since 2002, when we lost our fifth congressional seat. Our law makers somehow never got around to updating the rules. Responsibility for where we are today must rest with the legislature.
Five years ago, I was helping lead Vote Leave, the official campaign that won the Brexit vote in Britain. Brexit is one of the greatest examples of ordinary folk being able to vote to achieve real change. It shows us why citizen-led initiatives are essential.
Having won the Brexit vote, all sorts of attempts were made to try to overturn the decision of the people. I know what it is like to have direct democracy opposed by those that don’t want change.
There may now need to be a special session of the legislature to address the specific issue of medical marijuana. Serious thought also needs to be given as to how we fix our system of initiative.
Besides ensuring that there is a workable process in place to allow signatures to be gathered, here are three further suggestions on how to strengthen our system of direct democracy:
Initiatives should change state law, not just the state constitution. The initiative process that we have allows citizens to vote to change the state constitution. It ought instead to allow the public to vote to change ordinary state law.
The state constitution is supposed to set out the basic rules under which those wanting to shape and influence public policy operate. It is unwise to try to determine public policy by perennially seeking to incorporate amendments into the constitution itself.
Why? There is a risk that our constitution could become a hodge podge of competing claims. Far from empowering ordinary people, it easy to envisage how judges would be left to trying to untangle the inevitable incoherence. That’s hardly people power.
More importantly, good public policy emerges when new ideas can be implemented and then improved upon, being modified or even reversed if they don’t work. Using constitutional amendments to achieve specific public policy outcomes is the equivalent of engraving change in tablets of stone. It puts things beyond the reach of further democratic scrutiny. Allowing citizens to vote to change state law, itself subject to normal electoral cycles, would be much healthier for democracy.
Direct democracy should be direct. Curiously, the system of direct democracy in our state is actually rather indirect. Once enough signatures have been gathered to allow an initiative to take place, the legislature has considerable leeway to in effect doctor the question before it is put to the people.
Reform should not only allow popular votes to approve new laws – as happens in many other states across America. People should be able to vote on the question, not a doctored version of it designed to favor the outcomes politicians might prefer.
Tax neutral? It is easy to argue that voters should be generous with someone else’s money. But it is also profoundly dangerous. Initiatives should not become a device that allows people to vote to pass on the bill for something to their neighbors, or indeed to the next generation of Mississippi taxpayers.
Plenty of other states in America allow citizens a right of initiative yet insist that any proposals are tax neutral. We should consider doing so too.
The failure of our legislature to update the rules on initiative over almost two decades demonstrates that politics is too important to be left to politicians. Reform is needed to ensure that Mississippi has a right of initiative that actually works.