Those obnoxious, unconscionable primary ‘referenda’

I got rattled and did a stupid thing in the voting booth yesterday.

I had been unaware of the fact that there would be mock-referendum questions on the GOP primary ballot. So they took me by surprise. (The Democrats had their own questions; I just didn’t see those.)

One of the questions on my ballot. (Sorry about the glare.)

One of the questions on my ballot. (Sorry about the glare.)

One asked whether unborn children should be protected by due process. The other was about doing away with the state income tax. Well, as you know, my main objection to abortion on demand is that it allows a single individual — and an extremely interested individual, the sort who would have to recuse herself were she a judge or juror in a court — to make a unilateral, irrevocable decision regarding life and death, one from which there is no appeal. So yeah, due process. And the last thing our tax system needs is to be thrown further out of whack by completely eliminating a leg of the three-legged stool.

So, since I was being asked to make a decision now, without further reflection, I said “yes” and “no.”

But I was uncomfortable with both answers, and went out feeling uneasy about them. And the reason why didn’t hit me until I was in the car: I shouldn’t have answered either of them!

I shouldn’t have answered them for two reasons:

  1. I don’t vote for candidates when I haven’t had the chance to go through a careful discernment process before going to the polls. It is my firm policy to leave those races blank. I refuse to be one of those careless, irresponsible voters who decides on the basis of name recognition or spur-of-the-moment gut feeling. So why would I do any differently with ballot questions?
  2. This is the big one: I am deeply, profoundly opposed to these gimmicks on primary ballots. There’s no way I should have participated in the farce in any way, shape or form.

First, I do not believe in direct democracy; it’s a terrible way to make important public decisions. Making decisions by plebiscite may not be the worst form of government, but it’s right up there. Or down there.

It’s not that the people are stupid and legislators necessarily wise. It’s the process itself. When you boil an issue down to a “yes” or “no” answer, you have usually oversimplified it, and guaranteed a bad policy decision by ruling out an in-between course. Second, the deliberative process (even though nowadays, with fixed partisan positions, precious little actual deliberation goes on) takes longer than a snap, thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision. A person who has days or weeks to think about an issue while it makes its way through a legislative body has far more time to study the issue, to talk with others about it, and think about it himself, and thereby make a more nuanced decision in the end.

Electing representatives to go through that process is part of the specialization that is a key characteristic of an advanced, modern economy. We are not independent yeoman farmers who produce all we need from our own land (and we weren’t in the late 18th century, despite what Thomas Jefferson may have fantasized). We may be smart people; we may be brain surgeons. But brain surgeons depend on other people to spend time learning to grow their food or build their smartphones or repair their air conditioners or, for that matter, operate on portions of anatomy other than their brains.

Most of us are too busy earning a living to study all the ins and outs and nuances of each issue, or engage in debate with people with differing views on the subject. So we elect people to go spend time doing all those things. They may be no smarter than we are, but that’s their job, and we rely on them to do it, or we elect someone else.

Second, those mock referenda may actually fool a lot of voters into thinking they’re deciding something — that it actually is a plebiscite — when they most emphatically are not. Which is another recipe for making people even more discontented with their government, when they see that what they voted for doesn’t happen.

Third, worse, the opposite can happen — partisans will actually use such ballot results as a guide to how they should vote, even how they must vote (because unfortunately, too few politicians understand that they are supposed to go and study and think and make decisions, rather than vote according to which way the wind is blowing). And you get calcified, immutable positions taken by lawmakers who think they don’t have the right to think for themselves and make a better decision.

That was the case with the most offensive of these mock referenda ever — the question on the 1994 Republican primary ballot asking whether voters wanted to keep the Confederate flag flying atop the State House dome.

It was a purely party-building thing. This was the year of the Angry White Male in national politics, as you will recall, and this was seen as a way to entice said males — those of the “Fergit, Hell!” subgroup — to come out and choose a GOP ballot. It worked — or something did. The AWMs turned out in droves, and of course voted to keep the flag up there.

It you’ll further recall, it was right after that election that the GOP took over the SC House. The election itself almost got them there, then some defections completed the job. This was the year when I had been stirring up unrest against the flag (that year was when I started doing that, as it was my first on the editorial board), so one of the first things the new GOP House did — citing the results of their mock referendum — was push through a bill that put flying the flag into law. Before that, a governor could have gotten up one morning and decided to tell the building maintenance not to raise the flag, and that would have been that (at least, in one optimistic, theoretical scenario). After that, the Legislature would have to act for anything to happen on the flag.

So, yeah, in case you were wondering — it’s not just a matter of violating abstract principles of good government. These things can do actual, long-lasting harm to our state…

29 thoughts on “Those obnoxious, unconscionable primary ‘referenda’

  1. Mark Stewart

    I kind of like them – they let you know that the primaries aren’t – and don’t pretend to be – real voting. The primaries do have real world election consequences, however, just as these mickey-mouse partisan hand grenades do (though thankfully to a far lesser extent).

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Was there ANY coverage of this? Maybe I missed it… Of course, had I been still at the helm of the edit board, the only recommendation we would have had would have been, “Ignore these mockeries of republican government! Don’t dignify them with an answer!”

  2. Pat

    I didn’t answer either of them. Like you, Brad, I’ve chosen not to vote on areas with which I am unfamiliar. In reference to the questions, they were just surveys and not binding. I’m sick of surveys, especially the ones that don’t allow for a real opinion to be expressed but instead lead to the outcome the organization doing the survey wants.

  3. susanincola

    I skipped them, too. Questions remind me of the calls we get before every election doing “surveys”. I don’t participate in those, either. It’s annoying to find that same sort of junk on the ballot.

  4. Lynn T

    Actually the referendum didn’t just ask whether an unborn child should be protected by due process, but whether this should be true from the time of conception. I don’t question whether you personally know the issue well enough to understand the question. However, you are right that people shouldn’t vote on issues that they haven’t studied, because many people who would support stronger restrictions on abortions and hit the “yes” button would not vote for this if they fully understood how extreme this statement is. It would even prevent in vitro fertilization.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Which I think might be fine with some Catholics. Isn’t that the Church’s position?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I’d have to look that up to know.

        I know I’d have a hard time picking another threshold that is as definitive as conception. It’s binary; it’s like ones and zeros. Before conception, this new, individual life has not begun. After conception, it has. Any other lines people attempt to draw seem fuzzy and arbitrary, however sincere and thoughtful the efforts of those drawing them…

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Viability, when a fetus can survive on its own.
          Which is what the Supremes decided….

          1. Mark Stewart

            There is also birth… That’s a pretty bright line; there is either a fetus attached to its mother or there is an air-breathing, independant child.

        2. Kathryn Fenner

          Well, look it up on your handy dandy Catholic rules app.! What you don’t have one? Doug–there’s your million dollar app idea!
          At least up until recently, and maybe even now, the Church opposed IVF.

        3. susanincola

          Isn’t the word conception even a little ambiguous? Is it at the point the egg is fertilized, or at the point it implants in the uterus? I think there are forms of contraception that say they do not cause spontaneous abortions where some feel they do that hinge on this distinction.

    2. Karen Pearson

      And it could threaten a woman’s health or life while the fertilized egg in an ectopic pregnancy received “due process.”

  5. Herb

    Very insightful, Brad, thanks for this. I voted as you did, but was broadsided, and couldn’t figure out why I didn’t like this whole thing. It helps to have someone articulate what’s bugging you; not that it helps this time, but maybe for next. And I’ll admit that I was motivated to vote by that guy down the street on Monday who was bellowing on his foghorn all afternoon about getting Graham out of the Senate (and I could hear it in my house two blocks away). That made me so mad that the first thing I did Tuesday morning was go out and vote.

  6. scout

    I voted on both because I thought I understood them well enough after reading them a few times, and I knew my view was probably the minority so I wanted it heard. If they had been long and wordy and full of legal language that confused me, I likely would have chosen not to vote, since I hadn’t researched them. I didn’t know they were going to be there either, and I didn’t know they were mock – but I figured they were not final, since this was just a primary. I was kind of worried they were gonna show up again on a full election later.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Yeah, that’s sort of what I did, although I so support a woman’s right to choose through viability, and think we need higher taxes in this state, not lower.

  7. Doug Ross

    Isn’t it ironic that we have a Congress and state legislature with such low approval ratings yet some are bothered when the people actually get the option to vote specifically on items that their representatives won’t take action on?

    Sometimes the system needs a strong jolt from the people to get them doing what they are supposed to do.

    As for Bard’s comment: “And the last thing our tax system needs is to be thrown further out of whack by completely eliminating a leg of the three-legged stool.”

    You speak of this “stool” as if it is an absolute necessity, a proven way to properly fund the government. Except there are plenty of states that have a two legged stool or a one legged stool that perform better than South Carolina. We don’t need a three legged stool. We need a tax system that is fair and funds only those programs that are absolutely required. The three legged stool is actually a moth ridden massage sofa with Cheetos stains.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The three-legged stool just describes one way of achieving a fair, stable system of taxation, and it does indeed have a proven track record of doing so.

      What we’ve seen in recent years, with big shortfalls in state revenue and big cuts to basic services, is what you get when things get out of balance. In SC, we’ve taken homeowner property taxes out of the mix for a huge portion of what we fund through taxes — school operations. In doing that, we’ve put too much stress on the sales tax, which itself is out of whack because we exempt so many things from that tax.

      The burden needs to be spread more evenly, and eliminating the income tax would be a huge stride in the opposite and wrong direction.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, and this is most assuredly NOT a case in which “the people actually get the option to vote specifically on items that their representatives won’t take action on.”

      It’s a mockery. The people are deciding nothing. It’s just a way for pols of one party or the other to create some political buzz for some things that they already want to do.

      It’s a farce.

      1. Doug Ross

        If the questions get enough support to move them to the ballot in November, I’m all for it. If we expect citizens to be informed enough to vote for politicians why can’t we expect them to vote for ballot initiatives? Or is the truth that our political system is built upon an uniformed, apathetic voter base?

        How does your opinion on these types of questions line up with your support for the penny sales tax? I guess it’s okay to ask the people to vote FOR a tax but not AGAINST one???

        1. Doug Ross

          I’d be for all sorts of questions being added to the ballot… what better way to get the true “pulse of the people”? Much better than polling or random sampling… Even if the questions are non-binding, they provide valuable feedback to those in office.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            I guess so, since they are polling actual voters, instead of “likely” voters.

  8. Brad Warthen Post author

    I just talked to a friend who thinks the way I do, who said the way to react to this questions isn’t to refuse to answer. It’s to answer “no” to all of them, since the parties are relying on big “yes” votes. That would discourage them from doing this.

    Good point. Although I have a problem with voting “no” on something I agree with.

    We used to have these debates at the paper sometimes about urging people to vote “yes” or “no” on an issue purely for strategic reasons, not based on the substance of the issue. We would end up rejecting it because of the intellectual dishonesty — not to mention risk, however slight — of voting for something that we did not want to happen in the real world. And we couldn’t urge someone else to do that if we wouldn’t do it ourselves.

    It may sound like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but it was important to us. We dealt in ideas about what SHOULD happen. Generally speaking, it would be wrong to play games with that…

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