The Ballot Initiative: Too much democracy for Kansas politicians to handle?
Political reform has been on my mind lately. I even considered writing this column about why Kansas should adopt ballot initiatives, also known as referendums or ballot measures.
But let’s get real. The Kansas Legislature probably won’t consent to giving average voters — you — that much power.
Kansas is one of 24 states without initiatives. All of our neighboring states have initiatives, as do most western and Plains states.
Over a century ago, the Populist and Progressive movements championed the initiative as a tool to weaken the sway that the wealthy and special interests held over politics.
That was an era when corruption was often more blatant than today. If monied interests had bought off a legislature and if politicians catered primarily to those interests, then giving farmers and workers the power to make laws themselves seemed the ultimate check on politicians.
However, Kansas never adopted that reform. Kansans today are not allowed to propose laws themselves for the ballot and then vote directly on those proposals. Kansans only vote on state policy directly if supermajorities of the legislature allow you to vote on their preferred amendments to the state constitution.
Politicians in the Kansas Legislature hold all of the power right now. When their priorities and preferences don’t reflect the will of the people, Kansans have no power to directly intervene into the policy process.
You might think that Topeka should support the initiative process. If you support putting less power in the hands of government and promoting local control, then letting Kansans make laws themselves seems a downright conservative way to accomplish both.
But that’s not reality.
Politics is fundamentally about power, and using power to promote your own opinions. And many Kansas politicians can probably rationalize why they shouldn’t give you their power.
Maybe they view their own elections as “mandates” for their own vague buzzword agendas that they predictably claim are also your agenda.
Or maybe there is that tired “we live in a republic, not a democracy” argument. Newsflash: republics are democracies, and America is both. But that’s a different column.
Maybe some of them think that you don’t know enough about policy to make policy yourself. Or that you won’t “see the big picture,” whatever that means.
There are also the arguments that politicians don’t say publicly. Letting Kansans express their values and desires directly through the ballot initiative means that Kansans might do things that politicians don’t want. Like legalize marijuana, expand Medicaid, raise the minimum wage, or set your own tax rates.
Interest groups and lobbyists probably wouldn’t like initiatives either. Right now, getting what they want means courting 165 legislators in Topeka — not persuading average Kansans to make policy favorable to them.
Here is the brutal bottom line: Why would legislators weaken their control over you? Why would they make winning harder for themselves? What would they get for giving you more power?
Bluntly, initiatives seem like pure losing for politicians. And frankly, there is no organized public pressure in Kansas for initiatives. Election challengers ignore the issue. There is no clear political penalty for opposing initiatives or giving them half-hearted, noncommittal lip service.
If citizens want initiatives, they need to demand the process loudly. Until that basic political calculus for politicians changes, don’t expect them to give Kansans that much power anytime soon.
Patrick R. Miller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at email@example.com.