Initiatives and Referenda - Is Abstinence the Right Policy for Connecticut?

May 02, 2012

More than half of all U.S. states provide for some form of “direct democracy” – the term used for governance mechanisms that allow citizens to participate directly in the legislative process. Connecticut is not one of them. Stories of gridlocked government and encyclopedic, incomprehensible ballots make it easy to conclude that in some states direct democracy has gone too far. But is no direct democracy any less radical or off the mark than too much?

Connecticut has had several close looks at direct democracy, but has declined to adopt it. At the State’s 1965 constitutional convention, delegates considered but ultimately rejected various proposals to introduce direct democracy. In a 2008 poll, 65% of Connecticut residents said that they favor ballot initiatives. But that same year, voters decided against holding another constitutional convention, which could have, among other things, resulted in an amendment to allow for direct democracy.

Connecticut’s rejection of direct democracy can be explained, at least in part, by a broader skepticism that pervades the national discourse on the subject. Initiative and referendum processes in California have been subject to particular ridicule. The Economist, for instance, recently blamed California’s budget and public education problems on the state’s extensive use of direct democracy.

That individual voters may not always get it right, however, does not mean that their legislatures do – a lesson that Connecticut knows as well as any state. Although Connecticut does not provide for direct democracy, it has the highest debt per capita and largest educational achievement gap of any state in the country. In these areas where California is famous for its troubles, Connecticut has not done better; it may have done worse.

The truth is that much of the skepticism towards direct democracy is grounded in myth and supposition rather than research and analysis. The purpose of this paper is to correct popular misconceptions about initiatives and referenda and to provide an overview of the different types of direct democracy tools Connecticut might consider adopting. Connecticut’s policy of no direct democracy is extreme and begs the question of whether the state is missing an opportunity to improve the structure and effectiveness of its government. We make no recommendation other than that Connecticut and its legislature review and debate whether some form of direct democracy is better than none at all.

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