Ballot Initiatives: How They Work

Ballot Initiatives are the questions you see on the ballot. The reasoning behind ballot initiatives is that a ballot initiative can make law that the legislature won’t, or politically can’t. Legislation that would have a slight majority — or no majority — can become law. If the legislature later undoes a passed initiative, by legislation, they actively defy the voted will of the people. This could be politically risky.

What can go wrong?

  1. Some of the initiatives will require detailed rules for implementation by the legislative bodies. With these, the devil (and the delays) are in the details. What can go wrong is that legislators get to say they support the will of the people — while thwarting that will — by slowing or stopping the change that people voted for.
  2. Citizens often vote with their emotions, not their heads. Big money is poured into some ballot questions to hire people and pay for advertising to stir-up emotions. If voters are angry, scared, or self-righteous about the ballot questions before them, they will vote with those feelings.

Examples from the time I’ve lived in Massachusetts:

Mandatory seat belt use law was voted out by ballot initiative in 1986; and again in 1994.  The argument against mandatory use of seat belts was this: Will this give police an excuse to pull you over, if you don’t have your seat belt on? (OMG, here comes “click it or ticket”!) We can’t let the government tell us how to take care of ourselves!  It is our autonomy at stake!

Even though the statistics are very clear that seat belts reduce injury and save lives, autonomy is more important to the ballot initiative voters. The mandatory seat belt law was voted out by ballot initiative in 1986, re-enacted by the legislature; it was voted out again in 1994 by ballot initiative; it was re-enacted again.

The legislature took this risk that there would be few single-issue voters who would not re-elect them if they repealed this law. They paid more attention to the Center for Disease Control, whose statistics overwhelming support seat belt use: “among drivers and front-seat passengers, seat belts reduce the risk of death by 45%, and cut the risk of serious injury by 50%. Seat belts prevent drivers and passengers from being ejected during a crash. … More than 3 out of 4 people who are ejected during a fatal crash die from their injuries.”

Bi-lingual education was voted out by ballot initiative in 2002. This was done over the objection of many teachers’ organizations. That year, I couldn’t step foot in Davis Square without having someone come up to me to tell me why bi-lingual education was ruining the system for American children. Some of you may not know this, but I have a Master’s Degree in Deaf Education and was taught the linguistic and cognitive benefits of teaching subject matter in a child’s first language. (In the case of deaf children, ASL). I argued with more than one of the supporters of ending bi-lingual education from my position as someone who taught in a bilingual system. The conversations almost always ended with something like this: “My name a relative came to America and spoke name a language. He/she had to struggle to learn English. If he/she didn’t, he/she couldn’t get a good job and improve our family’s economic position. It’s not fair that Spanish people (yes, they said “Spanish people”) want special treatment. It’s not fair. I would hear, “it’s not fair” shouted behind me, on as I walked away.

The argument for this bill was one of fairness. Someone getting something that your family didn’t get is unfair. Therefore, our inner sense of being ripped off gets alerted. Enough people voted for that bill, even though teachers and educational principle spoke against it.

It took until this year, 2018, for bilingual education — when it is educationally necessary as decided by educational professionals — to be voted back into existence in Massachusetts. It will serve the 90,000 second-language students in the Commonwealth. It is a political hot-button to support bilingual education, so a generation of school children did without it.



Leave a Reply