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Ballot questions are supposed to enhance democracy. So why are they ignored?

The voice of the people” has gotten a lot of lip service in the past year. First, it was cultural conservatives fuming over the defeat of Wisconsin’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban in federal court. Then, it was Milwaukee streetcar opponents, who attempted to force a binding citywide referendum on the planned Downtown transit line. In reality, the People’s Voice has often counted for very little in local referenda, as it’s frequently shouted down by business leaders, manipulated for political advantage or simply ignored.

Illustration by Chris Whetzel.

Illustration by Chris Whetzel.

Referendum:
Cut County Board Pay? (April 2014)

Result:
Approved – but state legislators beat voters to the punch.

Local business leaders and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele trumpeted the results of this binding referendum in which 71 percent of voters agreed to slash county supervisors’ pay and end their benefits. But it didn’t mean much. In the same law that called the referendum, Republican state legislators ordered such deep cuts to the board’s budget that the pay and benefit reductions probably would have happened anyway, according to County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic.

Referendum:
Universal Sick Leave? (November 2008)

Result:
Approved – but lawyers and lawmakers prevented
implementation.

Workers’ rights activists used Wisconsin’s direct-legislation law – which lets voters pass local ordinances – to call a binding referendum on whether employers should be required to provide paid sick leave. City voters said “yes” at a level of 69 percent, but lawyers for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce tied up the measure in court for more than two years. By the time an appeals court upheld the ordinance in 2011, Republicans had won control of state government and moved swiftly to outlaw such rules statewide.

Referendum:
Sales Tax for Parks and Buses? (November 2008)

Result:
Approved – but legislators ignored the advisory measure.

Sharing a ballot with the sick leave question was another seeking to replace property tax funding for parks, public transit and paramedics with a 1 percent sales tax. A 52 percent majority of Milwaukee County voters agreed, but the Democratic-controlled state Legislature and then-Gov. Jim Doyle refused to grant the county the new taxing power amid opposition from business interests and then-County Executive Scott Walker.

Referendum:
Permit the Death Penalty? (November 2006)

Result:
Approved – but executions remain outlawed in Wisconsin.

Sometimes referenda are intended to act as magnets, attracting specific kinds of voters to the polls. In 2006, Republicans hoped to draw conservatives in this way with questions on same-sex marriage and allowing the death penalty in Wisconsin, “but that boomeranged on them,” as more liberals turned out than expected and pushed the electorate leftward, according to former Democratic legislator Mordecai Lee, a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Still, both measures passed, including the advisory question supporting capital punishment in certain first-degree homicide cases supported by DNA evidence. But like other referendum-backed ideas, capital punishment bills have languished on a legislative Death Row.

‘Tuned Out’ appears in the July 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Purchase a copy on newsstands at one of 400+ locations throughout Wisconsin.

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