Showing Initiative: The "Right" Way

By Nikhil Aziz

Statewide ballot initiatives have been launched across the United States in the 1980s and 90s targeting civil rights, gay rights, immigrants’ rights, reproductive rights, affirmative action, and bilingual and public education. A classic example is Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2 that passed in 1992, which the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned in 1996 as unconstitutional. Massachusetts “SuperDOMA” anti-gay ballot initiative (H4840) is only the latest in a series of such anti-gay measures organized primarily by the political Right under the guise of “popular will.”

The heated debate over the Massachusetts Legislature’s recent decision to adjourn instead of voting on H4840 obscures the reality behind the political Right’s spin that ballot initiatives are a popular expression of democracy in this country. Slogans such as “Let the people vote!” tend to camouflage the real initiators behind such “expressions of people’s wishes.” Researcher Jean Hardisty has argued that ballot initiatives are a major instrument in the Right’s contraction of democracy. She states that the New Right fired its first political shot with the 1978 anti-tax Proposition 13 in California curbing property taxes and crippling that state’s revenues.

Entrepreneur Howard Jarvis leading a coalition of business and real estate interests, rather than any mass movement, was the real force behind Prop 13. Similar groups played a central role in the case of Massachusetts’ Prop 2.5 in 1980. Usually, a small number of people conceptualize most of these “popular referendums,” and then canvass it to the broader public with substantial financial backing, well-orchestrated media campaigns designed by public relations firms, and paid signature gatherers. For the latter, money rather than ideology often motivates horsing around to get the maximum possible signatures on petitions, as was evident in the case of H4840.

Almost all of these initiatives have another thing in common besides right-wing sponsorship and major financial support. Their language is very often deceptive. For instance, Ward Connerly launched the 1995 anti-affirmative action/civil rights ballot initiative Prop 209 that passed in California as the “California Civil Rights Initiative.” Christian Right activist Lon Mabon promoted Oregon’s barely-defeated anti-gay Measure 9 as the “Student Protection Act.” The Ron Unz-led anti-bilingual education initiative in Massachusetts is titled “An Act relative to the teaching of English in Public Schools.”

The Unz initiative is actually very punitive in scope. It allows teachers, administrators, and elected officials who refuse to comply to be sued until the child is 18. If found liable they could be forced to pay damages and legal fees, and be prevented from working in any public school district for five years. Defendants would have to pay damages from their pocket because the initiative disallows payments from third parties like municipalities, insurance companies, or unions.

Wealthy Californian Ron Unz is the main figure associated with the anti-bilingual education initiative but local “ordinary citizens” are involved too. Researcher Paul Dunphy writes that many are associated with the Boston-based Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a major advocate of privatization and charter schools. Pioneer board chair, Lovett Peters, gave $10,000 to the Unz initiative, and Pioneer board member Thomas P. McDermott and Lawrence Coolidge, Pioneer board member Nancy Myers Coolidge’s husband, each contributed $5,000. Raymond Stata, a contributor to Pioneer board member William Edgerly’s charter school lobbying group, Partnership for Better Schools, doled out $50,000.

The groups behind these ballot initiatives often have deceptive and inclusive-sounding names as well. Connerly’s outfit is called the American Civil Rights Institute, while Mabon’s is titled the Oregon Citizens Alliance. The anti-gay forces in Massachusetts banded together as Massachusetts Citizens for Marriage. As a result many voters, hard-pressed for time and confronted with a host of initiatives on election day, are confused about their intent and the agenda of the sponsoring groups.

It is crucial that citizens familiarize themselves with the real forces and agendas behind ballot initiatives. An easy method of finding information on ballot initiatives is through the Ballot Initiatives Strategy Center. The BISC tracks ballot initiatives nationwide and has a resource library that provides information on the funders and groups that initiate the measures. Armed with such knowledge, citizens can make conscious and informed decisions about issues that have an impact on all of us.

Opinions by Nikhil Aziz

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