Fri 1 May 2009
A Common Sense Primer on the Initiative Process
By Dennis Polhil
On Election Day, Nov. 5, Colorado citizens will exercise their right to vote not only in electing candidates but also in deciding upon proposed laws, both statutory and constitutional. Some of these proposals will have been initiated by signature petitions, while others were referred from the General Assembly for final action by the voters.
The “initiative and referendum” feature of self-government in Colorado flows from the bold declaration in Article V, Section 1, of the State Constitution: “The people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and amendments to the constitution and to enact or reject the same at the polls independent of the general assembly and also reserve power at their own option to approve or reject at the polls any act or item, section, or part of any act of the general assembly.” It is a provision not to be taken for granted, since more than half the states (26) do not recognize it in their constitutions, nor does it occur in the U.S. Constitution. It is prized by some Coloradans as an important bulwark of liberty, but criticized by others as a nuisance or flaw in the system.
Initiative and Referendum (I & R) is briskly debated in every election year as the ballot fills up with questions for decision and the airwaves buzz with ads pro and con. The debate becomes especially hot in years when the ballot process is used to revise itself, as was the case in 1994 with enactment of the single-subject rule as is recurring in 1996 with Referred Measure A, the 60-percent proposal, and Amendment 13, the petition rights measure. The present paper will not address the merits of those specific proposals, but will provide a general primer on petitions, ballot questions, and I & R as a time-honored feature of the U.S. and Colorado political scene in this century.
While this boisterous manifestation of popular sovereignty is no panacea, it cannot be waved off as a bogeyman in the way sometimes attempted by those who would foreclose all argument with the simple mantra, “representative government.” Our ancestors who pioneered representative government were the same ones who cherished petition rights from the time of the Magna Carta and who acknowledged them in the First Amendment right to petition. The petition right and representative government can more properly be seen as complementary, not antithetical, as the succeeding discussion will show.