Thomas Schaller, Political Science, in the Baltimore Sun

Tom Schaller 1“The desire to empower citizens directly is alluring in principle but can be very problematic in practice,” writes UMBC political science professor Thomas F. Schaller in his latest Baltimore Sun column.

Schaller is referring to the practice of using ballot referenda to impact policy, rather than working through the legislature. He writes, “Last week, top Maryland Democrats announced their intention to make it more difficult to put statewide policy referenda on the ballot. The move is a clear response to Republicans’ success last year in putting to referendum policy questions in the hope of achieving victories the GOP couldn’t win in the legislature.”

But what, exactly, is the problem with this form of “direct democracy”? Schaller suggests, “Policy fights should be won by persuading the public to elect officials who will fight to pass laws, issue orders and appoint judges who in turn rule in accordance with public preferences. Circumventing the checked-power lawmaking process with referenda, or trying to manipulate the referendum process to embolden or thwart the other party, offends our constitutional traditions.” For these reasons, he argues, Maryland Democrats’ efforts to limit referendum access are right on merits, but wrong on motives.

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