Ballot initiatives and Canadian politics

Blog, Politics, Joseph Quesnel

Many Canadian observers would be amazed at the number and breadth of ballot initiatives that will go before American voters tomorrow.

The election of a president is not the only exciting aspect of tomorrow’s vote.

Dozens of states will be putting questions before voters, including the usual marijuana questions, and issues related to the definition of marriage.

Some other interesting issues are ones of importance to individual freedom and the scope of government. In North Dakota, for example, a ballot measure would include protection of farmers and ranchers in that state’s constitution.

Louisiana is putting a ballot measure would replace existing gun restrictions and place much more of an onus on gun control advocates to prove the need for restrictions.

Canada has much more of a limited relationship with this sort of “direct democracy,” as it is often called. British Columbia and Ontario used this sort of consultation on the HST and switching to a non-first-past-the-post electoral system. Traditionally, we have referenda on major constitutional questions, such as in the case of the Charlottetown Accord. Otherwise, we rely on complete representative democracy and argue that if you disagree with a decision you can throw the “rascals out.”

But, is relying on the usual electoral system for all political questions good enough? What is there is no political incentive for politicians to ever deal with certain issues?

One issue I’ve thought of is property rights compensation. What politician would vote to add to government’s liabilities or limit government’s scope? Perhaps there could be a role for citizen input as average voters may be more inclined to put the government on the hook for its actions.

But, my colleague Steve Lafleur at the Frontier Centre points out rather well that these initiatives could be a recipe for disaster. Case in point is California, where 11 ballot propositions has produced a 144-page long voter’s guide. This seems to put too much weight on the voter to become informed.

Also, perhaps there are too many issues that can become ballot items that should not be. One risque example is an initiative in California requiring adult film actors to practice safe sex during production.
More dangerously, is there a mechanism to ensure minority rights are not subject to majoritarian whim? Also, could a ballot item be more about interest group politics, like a California one to label all genetically-modified foods?
Also, and very importantly, some ballot measures could remove political tools from legislatures that will shackle future governments, like New Hampshire’s move to permanently abolish an income tax. Perhaps they could need one in the future.

So, the question: Is there a proper balance between an unwieldy California-style ballot system and a system that never goes to the public?

The U.S. example shows us the many perils and perhaps why we should avoid much of it, but surely there must be some promise that could be applied in Canada.