November 8, 2011
Election Day 2011 and State Constitutions
Even though the media is obsessed with the 2012 elections, it is the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and as land use folks well know, a lot of important law is made at the state and local level during off-year elections. Today in Texas there are ten state constitutional amendments on the ballot for voter approval, generated by the 2011 legislative session (Texas' legislature still meets only bienially--one of four remaining states to do so, and the only major state).
I'm generally not a fan of constant new constitutional amendments, for two reasons, one structural and one democratic. First, many state constitutions--like Texas'--are already bloated. I printed it out once--all 80,806 words of it (sorry environmental profs)--and I make the point in class by comparing the massive document to a pocket U.S. Constitution. In general, I don't think that most mundane policy issues should be entrenched in fundamental law. On the other hand, this structural critique can be countered somewhat by the argument that while the federal constitution enables the Congress to do a certain range of things, state legislatures already have plenary power, so state constitutions largely exist to limit the legislature--and then they need to be amended often to adjust those limits. But still . . . 80,806 words?
My second beef with the practice of placing a slew of state constitutional amendments is has more to do with the theory of state and local elections, and I don't like it for the same reason I'm skeptical of the overuse of initiative and referendum. What could be more democratic than letting the people vote, you ask? The problem is informational. I usually ask my upper-level state & local government students--a sample of pretty well educated and informed voters--which way they voted on certain amendments or referenda from prior years. Almost universally I get two responses; either (a) no recollection whatsoever; or, occasionally, (b) they voted with their gut based on a cursory reading of the ballot text in the voting booth. And if they remember which way they voted, it was usually "yes" because the text sounded like "good things," or "no" because the text sounded like "spending more money."
There in turn at least two reasons why even smart voters end up voting with their gut on these important measures. First, the ballot language is usually vague and fuzzy, and often is quite different from the actual text of the law that will go on the books. I don't think this is usually done to confuse the voters, I think it's the opposite intent--but regardless, the ballot language in my experience is usually so general that it fails to communicate what the proposal is really about. Another major reason, of course, is that with a few exceptions, these items don't get very much media exposure. So most Texans probably know a lot more about, e.g., the latest in sexual harrassment allegations against national candidates, than they do about the 10 items they are probably going to add to the state constitution today. The info is out there, but it's up to the individual voter to burn some calories and go find and read information such as the analysis by the Texas Legislative Council.
Now in class, we talk about whatever amendments and referenda are on the ballot, and it's a lot of fun. Students do class presentations, we have guest speakers, and so on. And it often turns out that a lot of these state constitutional amendments (and local referenda) are substantively about land use--from eminent domain to land sales, zoning, conservation, and more (which was going to be the original point of this post, before I got off on my rant). So I do my part to create a group of 40 or 50 educated voters.
But if that's what it takes, is democracy really served by putting all this stuff on the ballot, and in such a vague manner? I find more and more that people in general really do care about land use in their communities and their region. A lot. Yet in the cases where they actually have a say in the matter, it gets translated so poorly that most votes actually cast are probably not informed ones. So it's the people behind the scenes in and around legislative bodies that end up making all the rules.
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