Why can’t voters decide issues?


By Andy Winemiller - awinemiller@civitasmedia.com



Recently I wrote an article regarding a local woman who is lobbying against a dog tethering law in Surry County.

Her cause seemed just enough, and her solution to what she perceives as a problem wasn’t extreme.

When she told me that she had been lobbying for some sort of anti-tether ordinance for more than a decade, I was a little appalled.

I wasn’t appalled so much at any lack of movement on the matter from our elected officials as I was that she hadn’t collected signatures and put it on the ballot for voters.

I got my answer as to why that hadn’t been done with a little bit of research. It turns out that a referendum or an initiative by the citizenry isn’t an option in this state. These two tools are quite useful checks to government.

In fact, they are the ultimate check on public officials. It affords a group of people the opportunity to play a direct role in government, with or without the blessing of elected officials.

I’ve even used these little democratic tools in my past. When a city council voted to increase taxes on the people of Lorain, Ohio, in 2008, they did so against the will of the people.

There was no voice on the all-Democrat council for any tax-concerned citizen. So a former law director and I became the voice. We set up a committee, collected signatures and placed a referendum nullifying the city ordinance on the ballot.

We stood outside local businesses, city parks and other locations for days on end collecting thousands of signatures. It was grueling work, but it paid off.

The measure to increase taxes failed miserably at the vote of the people.

It was no surprise that council didn’t care what the people thought. About a year later they passed the same tax increase, this time adding an emergency clause to the legislation. That meant the ordinance became effective immediately, and it also meant we could not run a referendum drive in opposition to the ordinance.

But we weren’t ready to throw in the towel. Ohio law gave us the option to place legislation on the ballot by way of an initiative. We sat down, wrote our own ordinance, formed another committee and went right back to collecting signatures.

We ran no campaign for our cause, and the Democrats ran a huge campaign against our “tax decrease.” Our ordinance, placing tax rates back to what they were prior to council’s move, passed handily when voters went to the polls.

I didn’t tell this story just to reminisce about long days in hot Ohio summers that were spent standing around attempting to get folks to sign a petition instead of fishing or some other leisure activity. In my 29 years on earth I’ve created far better memories about which I’d prefer to reminisce.

The fact is that we, as nothing more than average concerned voters, had a real voice in government.

However, we only had this voice because the law gave us the tools necessary to make the voice of the people of my former home heard.

North Carolina doesn’t have that option for folks who feel as if public officials have turned their backs on them. North Carolina is among 22 states that allow only for legislatively initiated constitutional amendments.

In other words, a change to the North Carolina constitution is the only law on which residents can vote. What’s worse is that the change must be initiated by the state legislature.

Imagine how effective a referendum could be in the Stokes County fracking situation. Folks could collect signatures, run a campaign and vote down the legislature’s decision to allow fracking.

Then the true voice of the people, not just the indirect voice through elected representatives gone astray, could be heard.

In the case of anti-tethering laws here, those residents could write their own ordinance. Then they could collect signatures, and let the people decide.

I’m not sure why citizen-referred initiatives and referendums aren’t included in the North Carolina constitution, but they should be.

Of course, to get the constitution changed there would have to be a constitutional amendment that is initiated by the legislature.

I’m not holding my breath there. I think state lawmakers would cringe at the thought of putting more power in the hands of the people.

Citizen-referred initiatives and referendums would be the ultimate check on a government which, as exemplified in the Stokes fracking instance, clearly has no interest in hearing the voice of the people.

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By Andy Winemiller

awinemiller@civitasmedia.com

Andy is a staff writer for The News and can be reached at (336) 415-4698.

Andy is a staff writer for The News and can be reached at (336) 415-4698.

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