How often should the referendum be used?

Originally published in the Daily Times

Marc Kilmer Jun 24, 2013

Let the voice of the people be heard clearly and often

The ultimate source of authority in our political system lies with the people.

What better way to express views than to allow voters to have the final say on some laws? That’s what a referendum does — it gives voters a way to ratify or reject laws passed by legislators. Given the ridiculous laws routinely passed by legislatures around the country, the referendum is needed today more than ever.

Having this type of check on politicians’ authority is especially important in a state like Maryland. In some states, voters go to the polls every two years to elect their county officials and state legislators. In Maryland, we vote for these politicians every four years. Within this four year cycle, there is no opportunity for voters to express their opinion on state or local issues except by referendum.

Many people oppose referendums. Some rightly point out we live in a republic, not a democracy. We elect lawmakers to represent us; we do not rule on legislation directly. However, referendums offer another check on the power of government.

Giving people the authority to reject a law that legislators passed is similar to an executive veto or a judicial ruling overturning a law.

Others object because they don’t like the choices made by voters. Anyone can cherry-pick instances where foolish referendums were passed. However, it is just as easy to point to foolish laws passed by legislators. Legislation that comes out of Annapolis every year should put to rest any idea elected officials are endowed with special wisdom. If your objection is that they produce poor laws, you haven’t paid attention to legislation passed by professional lawmakers around the country.

Many states allow far wider direct participation than Maryland. Initiative, referendum, recall and local bond issue votes are common. There is no evidence these states are worse off than states like ours, where voters have relatively few opportunities to affect government directly.

Maryland seems to have a low threshold for putting issues to referendum. However, given the state’s strict requirements for certifying petition signatures, it is difficult for voters to have any say on legislation. This should be changed.

When I served on the Wicomico County charter review committee, we recommended making it easier to put referendums on the ballot. A majority of the council supported this change. It’s good to know county lawmakers do not seem to fear the people’s voice.

Marc Kilmer, a Salisbury resident, is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.