Direct Democracy via Referenda

In any analysis of the recent election returns, the burgeoning importance of issues being decided by direct popular vote — the other elections, they might be called — deserves more than passing notice. For these referenda on consum­er, tax, environmental, spending, ener­gy and government disclosure subjects reflect the growing maturity of the citi­zen action movement. Bypassing political parties and reliance on the promises of politicians, the citizen action movement involves the patient gathering of thousands of voter signatures on petitions to place these questions on the ballot. It is a form of direct democracy.

Most of these citizen groups are shoe­string operations whose lack of funds is made up for by determination and imagination. It is no easy task to obtain as many as 500,000 signatures of voters on petitions as the People’s Lobby (3456 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 9009) has done in California for political reform measures.

MANY PEOPLE HAVE to believe in the necessity for utility rate reform and a permanent consumer organization for residential utility consumers to do what Bob Koitz and his hardy associates did in Ohio for their ballot proposals. Out­spent a hundredfold by the utility and ether giant corporations, the Ohioans for Utility Reform (P.O. Box 10006, Columbus, 0. 43201) put on a valiant fight in what they promise to be only the first round of an enduring struggle for consumer justice.

In Massachusetts, a grass roots civic group called Mass. Fair Share (364 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116) dis­played impressive organizing and publicizing skill in advancing to the bal­lot the reasonable notion that the vener­able utility gouge which made the small user of electricity pay much more per kilowatt hour than the larger industrial electricity user needed an overhaul. The entire might of the state’s industry, commerce and many high state gov­ernment officials was thrown against Fair Share. Why, you might ask, would government officials oppose such a presumably popular issue! More out of worry that direct democratic action would begin to challenge their powers of decision-making and. too often. the cushy relationship legislators have built up with friendly corporate lobbyists.

Direct referenda are used throughout the country for a variety of conserv­ative and liberal causes. But this in­strument of direct voter expression is by no means uniform throughout the states. It is much stronger in the west­ern states than in the south and east.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, over 300 issues were subject to direct vote at the state election level. The number will in­crease as more people perfect the peti­tion process and more community, con­sumer and other civic groups deepen their roots and expand their resources.

The defeat of many consumer and environment referenda is usually caus­ed by an overwhelming television cam­paign which grossly distorts the ques­tion on the ballot and raises the false spectre of massive unemployment. The atomic power industry and its allies used this scare technique together with millions of dollars to reach the public in several states this month.

Consumers interested in obtaining information from the California, Ohio and Massachusetts groups can send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the above-noted addresses.

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