The commoner. (Lincoln, Neb.) 1901-1923, March 01, 1919, Page 5, Image 5

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The Commoner
MAHCH, 1919
Initiative and Referendum Greatest
of Governmental Reforms
lhe idea of representative government Is an
old one, the natural outgrowth of an enlarged
democracy; but the line that separates the man
wio is at heart an aristocrat from the man who
is" at heart a democrat a line that runs
through society everywhere and always sepa
rates the advocates of representative govern
ment into two classes;
Those who belong to tho aristocratic .class
regard tho masses as really incapable of self
governmont, except to the extent of selecting
superior men to do their thinking for them.
Those who are at lieart democratic believe
that the people not .only have the right to
govern themselves, but have capacity for self
government as well, and, therafore, regard the
representative not as an unalloyed good, but as
a necessary evil. The democrat bolievos there
is more virtue in the people than finds expres
sion in their representatives; they would, if it
were possible, have all questions decided by tho
people themselves. This being Impossible, tho
representative is, according to the democratic
views, chosen, not to think for the people, but
to act for them and to carry out the wishes of
the poople.
It makes a great deal of difference, not only
to the public, but to the representative himself
which theory prevails the aristocratic -or the
democratic. If the aristocratic theory is tho one
adopted, the wishes of the people are disre
garded and their opinions despised.
Tho representative who holds the aristocratic
view prides himself on being above the "clamor
of the multitude" and Is quite free with tho use
of the word demagogue. .
He will tell you thai he follows his conscience
and is not willing to vote contrary to his con
science, no matter what his constituents thinlc
or demand forgetting that his constituents
have consciences also and have chosen him to
give expression to their consciences and not
merely to his own.
i It may he remarked in passing that tho con
science of the aristocrat hibernates dur
ng the campaign and only becomes active after
his election is made sure, and- then only when
some predatory interest is seeking a special
privilege to which the masses objoct.
The democrat I use the word, of course,
not in a partisan sense, but in the broader sense
In which it has been used for more than two
thousand years to describe the believer in pop
ular government is fully as conscientious as
the aristocrat, but, believing that he is merely
the trustee of others the servant of sovereign
people he considers It his duty to give expres
sion to the wishes of his constituents or resign
ana allow some one to speak for them who can
conscientiously do so.
In other words, the democrat, instead of mis
representing the" people as the aristocrat is
proud to do feels that he has no moral right
10 embezzle power and turn to his own advan
tage an official authority with which he had
teen entrusted by the people.
Hl democratic idea of representative govern
ment has been growing all over the'nvortu, and
im m n0re than here- A fe illuslFations
will suffice to establish this fact.
wpto he,members of the ElectorabCollege
iJl1" uie beginning, chosen with a .view to
;2ai,den1t action- The theory was that they
to SSJf fiettep abI than the vote at. large
didftSo , relative merits of the various can
man ol Und ,choose wlsely between them. . One
BtSL ?k solecte the President. of thetTnited
Hoi 2 Z n th0 electin was thrown Into- the
Clay Representatives. That man was Henry
andAenS!!0lceT 'was Dt)tween John Quiucy Adams
The !?W Jackson; the two leading candidates.
dislikVn i ? ?roferred Jackson, Tmt Henry Clay
wetehtv in- great democrat and used Jiis
Jackson I""nencQ ta congress to-turn against
vhich Li a Representatives Jrom states
eSn ha(l,BUPPWd Jackson itfthe 'popular
But tii i 8 thuo secured the presidency,
me issue thus drawn; was finally decided
in favor of democracy, as it has always been
in this country, and Andrew Jackson was oloctod
by the people not for one term but for two, af tor
Adams s single term. A presidential elector Is
now chosen bocause he favors a certain candi
date, and he would not dare to betray his trust
after election by voting for tho oppostto candi
date. In tho beginning of our political history tho
parties did not adopt platforms, but now for
nearly 100 years each part has committed Its
candidate to a declaration of principles, and
these declarations are becoming moro and moro
specific. The late Colonel Roosevelt made a tol
ling indictment against what he called "weasel
words" words put into a platform to suck tho
meaning out of adjoining words.
A party platform cannot bo justified on tho
aristocratic theory of reprosentativo govern
ment, because party declarations would sorely
hamper an official who deemed it his duty to
think for his people; they are welcome only to
those who are democratic enough to desiro to
think with the people.
3. Tho substitution of popular eloction of
senators for eloction by legislatures is another
milestone in tho march toward more democratic
methods. For 103 years after the adoption of
our constitution the people tolerated tho in
direct method of electing senators without a
protest that rose to tho dignity of a congres
sional resolution, but in 1892 the national
house of representatives cast a two-thirds voto
in favor of the submission of an amendment
providing for the direct election of United States
It took twonty-ono years from that time to
secure the reform, the amendment being adopted
in 1913. The resolution proposing tho amend
ment passed the house six times before it passed
the senate once, the reason being that tho senate
contained so many members who knew that they
could not be elected by direct vote, and were,
therefore, personally opposed to tho change.
And, it may bo added, that those senators' had
made the senate the bulwark o? predatory
wealth, and for nearly a generation had ob
structed remedial legislation. Tho popular elec
tion of senators was the gateway to other re
forms, and the senate, now as democratic as tho
house, has, since 1913, made a wonderful rec
ord as the' champion of reform.
4. Tho substitution of tho primary for tho
boss-controlled convention is another stop In
advance. The voter Is made secure in his right
to control party nominations and to determine
party declarations.
5. Popular government won another victory
when the appointment of the committees of the
house of representatives was taken out of the
hands of the speaker and deposited with a com
mittee chosen by the party in congress and re
sponsible to tho party.
G. A still further advance was made when
tho senate reformed its rules so as to permit
debate to be closed by a two-thirds voto. And
it has another advance to make before its rules
will harmonize with our theory of government
namely, the recognition of tho right of a
majority to force a voto after a reasonable op
portunity for discussion.
The above aro Hydrations .of the irresistible
trend of public thought toward more and more
popular methods of government, but none of
these compare in importance with the reforms
known as the initiative and referendum. They
are in fact, two reforms, but are so often united
in one demand that they are sometimes treated
as If they constituted a single reform, I shall
treat them as two, because they are entirely
distinct one from the other and one 13 much
moro important than the other.
The initiative Is a term used to describe a
governmental process by means of which a cer
tain percentage of tho people can, by signing a
Petition bring a proposition before the voters
of a elven governmental unit and secure a vote
upon it. When the proposition receives a
majority of the votes cast It has the same legal .
forco that It would havo if enacted by a legfe
lativo body. Tho Initiative can bo appliod in
municipality, in a county, In a state or in th
nation, and It can bo used to occur constitu
tional changes as well as statutes or ordinancoa.
Tho idea is not a now ono. It has long bean
cmployod in such mattors as the location of
county seats. It Is tho usual method Of socurlng
a voto on a county scat proposition, but ita ap
plication to legislation and to constitutions In
modern. Wo borrowed it from Switzerland,
whero it has rondorod signal sorvlco In safe
guarding tho principles of popular government.
Tho referendum is a torm which describes tho
process by which a given porcontago of the
voters can, by petition, securo a popular voto
on an ordlnanco or Btatuto boforo such moasuro
goos Into effect, a negative voto nullifying the
proposed ordlnanco or statute The referendum
is bettor understood than tho initiative. It has
long boon omployod In tho adoption of consti
tutional amendments.
Our federal constitution provldos that xiraond
ments shall bo submitted to tho states for rati
fication, and nearly all of our stato constitutions
provide that amendments to such constitution!!
shall bo submitted to tho voters for ratification.
For a considerable period It has boon cuBtomary
to roqulro a referendum on bond issues, and
moro recently city ordinances havo bcon mado
subject to referendum, and tho referendum,
thus used, has pfton saved tho public from In
justice at tho hands of city councils corrupted
by franchlso-soeking corporations.
Of tho two, tho Initiative is tho moro Im
portant, because It can do all tho referendum
can do and, besides this, can do what tho re
" ferondum cannot do, namely, initlato legislation.
Tho referendum cannot be Invokod until after a
legislative body has acted, and thcroforo it is
powerless to compel reforms. Tho referendum
can bo used to protect tho public from bad
laws, but it cannot coerce the legislature Into
tho enactment of good laws.
Tho initiative, on tho other hand, enables tho
people to pass over tho heads of legislators and
secure what they want in splto of legislative
inaction or opposition, and, ns it can repeal, as
well as enact, It has all the forco and effect pf
a referendum, but moves moro slowly. That Jo,
a referendum can prevent a law going Into
effect, whilo the initiative can 'repeal it after
it goes Into effect.
I havo merely stated tho principles. It Is not
worth whilo to deal at length with tho details,
as they can safely bo left to be decided by those
who boliovo in tho principles, Tho friends of
these reforms incline to a small percentage re
quirement for the petitions, while tho opponents
usually endeavor to mako the percentage as high
as possible.
If, for Instance, tho advocates of the initiative
and referendum want these processes invoked
upon tho petition of 10 per cent of the real
voters, the opponents are likely to Insist upon
20 or 30 or oven 50 per cent. The final decision
will bo determined by the value which tho de
ciding body places upon tho reform and its con
fidence in tho intelligence and patriotism of tho
There is ono detail that Is of very great Im
portance, namely, the voto required for tho
adoption of the proposition., submitted. Tho
friends of the initiative and referendum insist
upon tho right of the majority voting on tho
proposition. Tho opponents of theso reforms al
ways demand that tho affirmative 'vote shall
constitute a majority, not of the votes cast on
the proposition, but of all the votes Tast at the
election. The reason for thla demand is obvious.
A great many voters fall to vote on all propo
sitions submitted or even all the candidates.
This Is especially truo when the ballot is long.
Itis not unusual for 10 or 15 per cent, or even
more, of tho voters to fall to vote on the whole
ticket, and even a larger per cent may fall to
voto on separate propositions. It Is obvJo. sly un
fair for the negative to have the benefit of votes
not cast on the proposition.
To illustrate. If the total vote cast at an
election is 200,000, the candidates for governor
mayaltogether receive 190,000 and the candidatea
at the bottom of tho tfeket a total of 170,000, ami
150,000- may vote on a constitutional amendment
or a statute submitted by petition 'under the
initiative. The vote on tho amendment may be
7C.000 for and 74,000 against, a majority of
(Continued on page 10.)
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