An old friend once said to me that she thought voting should be a privilege, rather than a right. She felt citizens should be educated on the issues before they would qualify to vote. With that, presumably, would come the government requirement to take a course, complete a quiz, or somehow prove that you as potential voter were sufficiently informed to be eligible to step into the ballot box.
It’s a bit much for me, involving a bit too much faith in the benevolence of government, but, on the other hand, it’s not hard to empathize with the sentiment. Anyone who has made any sort of sustained investigation into the illegality of soft drugs, for instance, will soon come to the conclusion that the U.S. ‘war on drugs’ is a colossal waste of police and legal resources, a policy which pitchforks money to organized crime, fills up jails with non-violent offenders, and delivers scant results in terms of decreased drug use.
And yet, until very recently—maybe—a majority of American voters favored retaining laws prohibiting marijuana use. Why? Well, two reasons I think. First of all emotion, the historical residue of the hysteria generated by ridiculous government campaigns from out of the past touting the dangers of “reefer madness!” Secondly, the simple fact that these people aren’t well informed about the issue. They haven’t studied the facts. They haven’t seen how much money is spent eradicating marijuana fields, taking down grow ops, busting teenagers, jailing small-time dealers. They haven’t considered how much money flows to gangs, when it could be flowing in taxes to depleted government coffers. They may be vaguely aware that the prohibition of alcohol back in the 1920s didn’t work out that well, giving rise to the American Mafia, but they haven’t really had to examine the parallels between those events and the prohibition against marijuana. Why have the majority of Americans viewed marijuana prohibition as a good thing? They don’t know any better.
It’s just one example which raises the question of whether ‘direct democracy’ is a good thing. The digital revolution is fast delivering us the means to hold a referendum on every issue, voting from our smart phones, tablets and laptops. Should we go there? If we do we could probably eliminate the need for those noxious politicians squabbling in cantankerous legislatures. Then we could institute, just as my friend suggested, online courses which a prospective voter would be obligated to complete, before casting her vote on any particular proposed law. Tempted?
The question can be more germanely asked, here and now, as whether an elected official is compelled to vote ‘the will of the people.’ Setting aside for a second the reality of a ‘party whip’ dictating to said official how he will vote, should our rep be free to vote according to his own personal assessment of the proposition, or should he be obliged to vote in line with what polls show is the view of the majority of his constituents?
Personally, I’m a believer in representative democracy, where we send our best and brightest to debate, study and confer on the issues of the day, and then vote according to their soundest judgment. Referendums are a mug’s game. If we are to see progressive change in our society, we’re better off avoiding them. Why? For one specific reason: voting ‘no’ empowers; voting yes does not. We can frame the referendum question as carefully as we like, crafting it like obsessed ad men, but the fact is that the number of voters out there who feel at least mild resentment toward politicians dwarfs the number who may be uninformed about any particular issue. These folks are generally not terribly happy with their lives, and the easiest place to direct the blame is toward the government.
Thus, when the opportunity arises to ‘stick one’ to the government, they’re going to take it; they’re going to vote no to change. Voting no means that the power still resides with you—maybe I’ll vote yes next time, if you’re nicer to me in the meantime—but voting yes means you no longer hold any leverage. The power has been passed on to people who may never care to seek your input again.
As I keep saying, change is constant; new problems will always arise, so we need change to contend with those problems—new solutions for new problems. And referendums will always make that difficult. They’re a political cop-out. They amount to politicians dodging their responsibility.