Should I abstain from ballot questions?
November 5, 2006 5:46 AM   Subscribe

I am philosophically opposed to the concept of voter initiatives and ballot questions. There are three questions on my ballot on Tuesday. Should I leave them blank, or vote no?

I'm in Massachusetts, and there are no constitutional amendments or hot-button social issues up for grabs. The leading question is a proposal to allow grocery stores to sell wine, which is a front for an annoying, ongoing turf war between supermarket and liquor store lobbyists. These are the sorts of decisions I elect people to make for me, and I don't trust the electorate (including myself) to make an educated decision. Plus, I couldn't care less about the outcome. In a year where habeas corpus is being eviscerated in an effort to boost the profit margin of military contractors, this is not exactly the kind of direct democratic participation I had in mind.

If I leave these questions blank, I stand true to my principles by pretending the ballot questions weren't there. But if I vote no, I make it harder for the questions to succeed, thereby frustrating the process. So given my goals, which is the more "correct" vote?
posted by Saucy Intruder to Law & Government (21 answers total)
Would a "no" result prevent (either formally or informally) the legistature from taking the "yes" action in future? If so, you probably want to leave it blank. Otherwise, vote no.
posted by cillit bang at 6:00 AM on November 5, 2006

In Texas, we frequently are asked to vote for estoeric constitutional amendments described like this one: "The constitutional amendment providing for the clearing of land titles by relinquishing and releasing any state claim to sovereign ownership or title to interest in certain land in Upshur County and in Smith County."

I think that these things are necessary because of how unwieldy and inflexible our constitution is, which has been amended 439 times. I think it is time to get something a little more lasting, such as in the vein of the U.S. Constitution. So I always vote no on these things—I feel that will encourage those who want such initiatives approved to deal with it in a more scalable way.
posted by grouse at 6:03 AM on November 5, 2006

Best answer: I don't think abstaining means much of anything. If one built a movement of many people who agreed with you, and they acted in an organized fashion, and all of them abstained, the ballot provisions would still pass or fail as usual. But if all of them voted "no," and it became commonplace for ballot initiatives to fail, it would change the balance of power and force those who hope to effect change through ballot initiatives to effect change via other means.

In terms of your own decision, the questions are generally worded as "Should Chapter 138 of the General Laws be amended ..."

A no vote is thus consistent with your principles, as you are saying "No, it should not be amended." A no vote does thus not automatically imply that you (for example) agree with the liquor store lobby's positions.
posted by Chanther at 6:07 AM on November 5, 2006

These are the sorts of decisions I elect people to make for me,

except that the people you elected failed to make one that would prevent someone from overturning it with an initiative ... to my mind, the lobbyists are turning to the voters because they're dissatisfied with what the legislature has done

and I don't trust the electorate (including myself) to make an educated decision.

how educated do you have to be to say that selling wine in grocery stores isn't that big a deal? ... i assure you, in michigan, wine is sold all the time and the world hasn't come to an end ... the supermarkets want to because they want to make money ... the liquor stores don't want it because they want to make ALL the money ... and i guess it boils down to whether you think it's appropriate for the government to favor one group of merchants to the exclusion of all else

Plus, I couldn't care less about the outcome.

then you've answered your own question ... don't care? ... don't vote

i do agree with you that it seems that a responsible legislature should have settled this matter on its own ...
posted by pyramid termite at 6:16 AM on November 5, 2006

If you don't care, then don't vote, if you do care then vote. If you want to change the current system of ballot initiatives, then you will have to expand your participation in the system by writing letters to the editor, writing your elected offficials, gathering evidence to support your beliefs, and so forth. Think about how the tide has slowly shifted against electronic voting thanks to people doing those sorts of things.
posted by TedW at 6:45 AM on November 5, 2006

In some places, leaving a referendum vote on your ballot blank still counts as a "no" vote. I'm not sure how common that is, but it may mean that it doesn't matter whether you check the "no" box or not.
posted by katieinshoes at 6:54 AM on November 5, 2006

This is a real mountain out of a molehill. Neither decision has the slightest impact on anything except your feelings. So:

This time, don't vote on the ballot issues. See how it makes you feel. Next time, vote against the ballot issues, and see how that makes you feel. Then do the one that you like better.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:18 AM on November 5, 2006

How the ballot item ended up there is irrelevant. Your ethical duty (if I may impose one) is to either make an informed, rational decision, or, if you are unable to inform yourself adequately, abstain from voting on the item. Having an informed populace is the keystone of the "democratic" part of our democratic republic, so to willingly not contribute to this, when you have the means to, is dodging your responsibility.

This is the same thing as the sunk cost fallacy - the idiocy or genius that got the initiative on the ballot has already happened either way, so you should treat it with the same seriousness as items that got there through other channels. If somehow The Best Law Evar ended up as an initiative, would you still vote against it? I hope not.

If you're opposed to the process, then start telling people to stop signing the petitions that get these things on the ballot. Or start an initiative to increase the number of signatures / other hoops to jump through. Or call your legislator and ask him to settle issues that are getting on the ballot. Or contribute to an anti-initiative PAC (or start one). Not voting on these things (or worse, applying a blanket "no" vote) isn't going to change anything and will just give the less rational voters more power, which is the last thing you want.
posted by 0xFCAF at 7:18 AM on November 5, 2006

Whether it's yes or no, you're still voting, so if you're philosophically opposed to the idea of voting for the questions, as opposed to the practice under vote itself, you should mark nothing.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:25 AM on November 5, 2006

I live in Colorado where there are always ballot initiatives and such. I am usually opposed to these initiatives, too: A lot of time they consist of writing half-baked tax or spending requirments directly into the constitution, crippling the legislature.

So I vote "no" on nearly everything, even things that I often would agree with were I a state legislator and were it a normal bill.

But on the other hand, sometimes the initiative process puts super controversal measures before the people, stuff that legistatures have a really tough time with. This is the sort of thing that really should be directly before the people. This time around there are domestic partnership and marijuana decriminalization measures on the ballot. I plan to vote "yes" on both.
posted by yesno at 7:31 AM on November 5, 2006

You should vote "no," not abstain, by the way, only if the question is whether to amend the constitution or pass some kind of super-law that is hard for the legislature to overturn. The question is, "Should there be an amendment about this specific question?" The answer is "no."

You don't need to know any of the policy besides that. You are no obligation to be "informed." This is the kind of thing that does not belong in state constitutions, and voting "no" helps keep it out.
posted by yesno at 7:35 AM on November 5, 2006

Response by poster: Just to clarify, this is not Alabama, where a proclamation that kittens are adorable can make it into the state constitution. The Mass. ballot questions are proposals for ordinary amendments to the general laws. The legislature can simply repeal them if it wanted to, but that would be politically unwise. If the legislature is not passing the bills I want them to pass, then my recourse is to vote for people who will pass them. When Stop and Shop and Shaw's and Big Y get together to organize a voter initiative, I don't exactly get that warm fuzzy pilgrim-hat feeling inside.

When I say I don't care about the outcome, that's not exactly true - I care that the best decision will be made, after contemplative deliberation, testimony, and public input. I vote for the people who I can trust to make the best choice, whatever that may be.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:43 AM on November 5, 2006

Best answer: Nobody really has the luxury of philosophy at the ballot box.

If you want to express a pragmatic distaste for initiatives, vote "no" because the only thing that will slow down the pace of initiatives is create a history of their losing consistently.

However, I'd follow Yesno and urge you to consider how basically broken is our legislative and judicial system when it comes to the ability to deal with many matters, and to accept and exercise responsibility the mandate to decide you get with initiatives.

While the "brokenness" is most obvious when it comes to certain social issues, in some respect the system is far more broken when it comes to commercial issues. Your ballot issue is a great example: the regulation of liquor sales and distribution is completely rotten, and the issue might just be an important chance to take back power for private preference and competition in a way that the legislature would never voluntarily yield.
posted by MattD at 7:53 AM on November 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

Aside: in Minnesota, the law says you have to get a majority of votes cast on such initiatives, not just more yes votes than no votes. So, a blank vote here counts as a no.

I think the intent was to prevent anyone from slipping in a big initiative at the bottom of the ballot, then saying "Well, 3 people voted yes and 2 people voted no, so it passes".
posted by gimonca at 9:14 AM on November 5, 2006

An excellent question. Standing firm on principles does not make them true or meaningful or fair or just, and that's what wrong with principles. Honor is integrity and lacks hypocrisy, yet there is that nagging little issue of sanity, reason and common sense. The point is that we honor what is true, not the other way around. In a democratic sense it is a false nobility to be loyal to our own interests when loyalty has meaning to our common interests. That is not to suggest we abandon self-interest, but to never place it ahead of the common interests we have. If you are only having misgivings about a procedural element of democracy, you might consider that America doesn't even have a logically valid voting method for more than two candidates, and is still based on representative gerrymandering.
posted by Brian B. at 11:00 AM on November 5, 2006

The leading question is a proposal to allow grocery stores to sell wine, which is a front for an annoying, ongoing turf war between supermarket and liquor store lobbyists.

Wow, you sound really upset about this.
posted by dhammond at 1:14 PM on November 5, 2006

Response by poster: Have you seen the ads, dhammond? You'd be too.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 2:25 PM on November 5, 2006

These are the sorts of decisions I elect people to make for me, and I don't trust the electorate (including myself) to make an educated decision.

The 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
posted by w_boodle at 6:14 PM on November 5, 2006

The leading question is a proposal to allow grocery stores to sell wine, which is a front for an annoying, ongoing turf war between supermarket and liquor store lobbyists.

This explanation is lacking. I would think that the chains want to sell wine and somebody doesn't want to give up control. Having lived in a state that retails all alcohol sales through state run stores, with monopoly prices, including most beer, I can only tell you how lucky you are to have something on a ballot that let's you expand markets for the consumer that were taken away by lobbyists.
posted by Brian B. at 9:45 AM on November 6, 2006

If I felt the way you do about initiatives, I'd vote "no." I don't feel that way, in part because of how the initiative process can be hijacked, as it has (to some extent) here in Washington. There are some very questionable initiatives on the ballot, and abstaining from them would have no impact on whether they pass or not.

I believe very much in representative government, but because I rarely believe in the representatives themselves, I also believe strongly in the initiative process. Legislators lack the backbone to make difficult decisions, thanks to their peculiar desire to stay indefinitely in office, so the ability to present the people with initiatives is often the only way to get legislation passed.
posted by lhauser at 9:49 AM on November 6, 2006

Personally I would rather see more things decided on a ballot by the masses than by one elected individual. Think about it this way: You hear about a particular piece of legislation (maybe through a mailing list to which you are subscribed) and are urged to call your representative and beg them to vote yes/no. This is essentially the same thing as the ballot initiative, but with more people getting it called to their attention, and with less "ballot stuffing." Also, you say you elect people to make these decisions for you, but does the person you voted for always win? If so, then perhaps you have a point; but if not (more likely) then ballot initiatives give you (and the others who may have not have had their person elected) a voice they might otherwise have to trust to the elected official.

I am not sure I understand not trusting the masses, but trusting one individual to make decisions for the masses.

To answer your poll, you should vote "no" on things with which you do not agree, and "yes" on those things you do. If you have a real issue with ballot initiatives then you should do the leg work to have a ballot initiative added to an upcoming election which would do away with ballot initiatives.
posted by terrapin at 3:36 PM on November 6, 2006

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