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Enduring Questions and Unsatisfactory Answers About Direct Democracy  

Shaun Bowler and Todd Donovan

Direct democracy elections bring into sharp focus several enduring questions about the role of voters in elections. Questions of voter competence, majority rule, spending effects, and process concerns are all highlighted. Many of these questions form the basis of often very pointed debates within the literature. The study of direct democracy throws into sharp relief some of the most enduring questions relating to elections and electoral democracy. So far, however, the answers have not proved satisfying to many observers. In some cases, these debates have persisted despite an accumulation of empirical evidence that would seem to resolve the issues. Contrary to the claims of repeated criticisms, voters are capable of voting on ballot propositions in accord with their own interests and are supportive of the process as a means of making decisions. While direct democracy does have its flaws, the flaws identified by many critics are not really as damning as the critics would seem to believe. For whatever reason, however, the criticisms repeat.

Article

Direct Democracy and LGBT Politics  

Daniel C. Lewis

While many landmark policies affecting LGBT rights have been determined by legislatures and courts, voters have also often played a more direct role in LGBT politics through direct democracy institutions, such as the initiative and referendum. For example, in 2008 California voters approved Proposition 8, barring same-sex marriage in the state and setting the stage for a key federal court decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013). This followed on the heels of 31 ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage in the previous decade. Direct democracy has also been employed frequently to consider a range of other important issues relevant to the LGBT community, including bans on same-sex couple adoptions, nondiscrimination policies, education policies, and employment benefits. Further, as issues addressing transgender right have emerged on the political landscape, local referendums have addressed public accommodation discrimination, including so-called “bathroom bills,” like the high-profile Houston referendum in 2014. Most of these prominent direct democracy contests have resulted in negative outcomes for the LGBT community, spurring concerns about subjecting the rights of marginalized groups to a popular vote. However, some ballot measures, such as Washington’s 2012 vote to legalize same-sex marriage, have expanded or protected LGBT rights. Yet the effects of direct democracy institutions extend beyond the direct policy outcomes of elections and have been shown to shape the decision-making of elected officials as well. Still, studies of both the direct and indirect effects of direct democracy on LGBT rights reveal mixed results that are contingent upon public attitudes and how the issues are framed. When the public is supportive of LGBT rights and views them through a civil right frame, direct democracy has been used to expand and protect these rights. However, when the public views the LGBT community more negatively and views the issues through a morality or safety lens, LGBT rights are put at risk by direct democracy. As such, direct democracy institutions function as a double-edged sword for the LGBT community, simultaneously offering an opportunity to elevate LGBT rights issues onto the public agenda with a civil rights frame and posing a threat to the community when these issues are viewed in a more hostile manner.

Article

Direct Democracy and Political Decision Making  

Shaun Bowler, Reagan Dobbs, and Stephen Nicholson

Direct democracy in the United States is the process whereby voters decide the fate of laws, through either an initiative or a referendum. Initiatives allow voters to approve or reject a policy proposal, whereas referendums permit voters to decide the fate of laws passed by the legislature. Although some high-profile ballot measures, especially those related to ‘moral’ issues, may induce people to vote, most ballot measures are unfamiliar to voters and so have a limited effect on participation. Rather than mobilizing voters, the more choice confronting voters faced with ballot measures is whether to “roll-off” or abstain from voting on them. The subsequent decision, how to vote, is intimately related to the decision over whether to vote and is largely motivated by the same factors. In deciding whether and how to vote, voters must know what a ballot measure is about, discern the political motivation underlying it, and match that information to their political predispositions to cast a Yes or No vote; otherwise they abstain. The more voters know about a given proposition, the more likely it is that they will vote and, furthermore, that the vote they do cast will reflect their underlying political values. In contrast both to the claims made by many critics of direct democracy and, also, some current studies in political science, votes in direct democracy are often underpinned by substantive, policy-based considerations. Voters are thus capable of meaningfully participating in the direct democracy process.

Article

Religious Regulation in the United States  

Barbara A. McGraw and James T. Richardson

Although the United States Constitution presumably was designed to avoid “regulation” of religion, there is an interplay between religious individuals and private organizations, on the one hand, and the state, on the other hand, which has a regulatory effect on religion in some areas of public life. The First Amendment’s “Religious Clauses” prohibit an establishment of religion and preserve the right to free exercise of religion. An important area of contention and development in legislation and Supreme Court jurisprudence involves free exercise accommodations or exemptions to laws and rules that generally apply to everyone. These are particularly at issue in the workplace, in correctional institutions, and in the military. The latter two give rise to establishment issues, which have been resolved in favor of free exercise, as government support of religion has been held to be necessary to preserve the free exercise rights of inmates and service personnel. The enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) have led to a much greater deference to religious rights, resulting in accommodations that would not have been required under preexisting legislation and judicial interpretation. Another such area involves religious organizations themselves, in particular issues regarding tax-exempt status, land use, and faith-based initiatives. A provision in the tax code known as the Johnson Amendment, which restrains religious (and other tax-exempt organizations) from certain political activities, has been challenged recently as a limitation on free speech, however without success so far. Issues involving local government limitations on religious organizations’ land use through zoning restrictions are now being addressed more favorably for religious organizations through the land-use provisions of RLUIPA, although not without controversy. Faith-based initiatives have promoted religious organizations, or faith-based organizations (FBOs), as important government partners, which are eligible to receive public funds for the delivery of social services. Since the late 20th century, there has been a gradual, but significant shift toward greater respect for individuals’ and groups’ religious rights, especially reflected in recent legislation and Supreme Court decisions. Such trends suggest that, although religion has come into conflict with legal-policy developments in other areas, such as those involving gay marriage and contraception coverage, the right to practice one’s religion and participate in public endeavors alongside nonreligious individuals and groups, is likely to continue to expand for the foreseeable future.