Who’s in Charge Here: Eat Your Veg! (Or, Learn about VA Ballot Measures)


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Forgive me if you’re tired of hearing about elections. But beyond the Trump vs. Hillary mania, the Tim Kaine harmonica watch, and the RVA Mayoral Forum-a-Thon, there’s something else Virginians need to be aware of: ballot initiatives. Yes, even MORE stuff to worry about for Election Day! But just like your parents always made you eat your vegetables, no matter how much you didn’t like the broccoli, you need to know what you’re voting for in November. That INCLUDES ballot measures.

Ballot initiatives and referenda are supported by defenders of direct democracy. On this view, citizens should directly make decisions that affect them, and should, therefore, be given an up-or-down vote on important laws or constitutional amendments. Of course, that sometimes means that that powerful interests can hijack the citizen initiative process, or even that voters can get weird.

Still, Virginia doesn’t have the kind of government-by-referendum problem that California does – the 2016 ballot in that state includes 17 (!) – and requires the General Assembly to propose any measures for the ballot. Only after the GA votes “yes” on a measure for two consecutive years does it end up on the ballot. Only a handful of proposals make it through the process; this year we have two.

The first is a relatively non-controversial proposal to drop property taxes for surviving spouses of police officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty. Actually, the measure specifically lets local governments decide whether or not to charge the property tax for these spouses. These local governments can’t do so on their own because Virginia is a “Dillon Rule” state, where the General Assembly has to approve changes in city and county laws, no matter how small. This is a dumb system, of course, but that’s not really all that important for this initiative – just know that if you’re voting “yes”, you’re voting to give a break to the wife or husband of a hero. It’s hard to see anyone arguing against it.

The second measure is more controversial: an attempt to put Virginia’s “right to work” law into the constitution. Virginia’s laws are not favorable to unions, particularly the idea of a “closed shop” (where employers can agree to force all workers to join a particular union). Instead, employers are specifically prohibited from implementing a closed shop, and make union membership optional. Unions argue this makes it harder for them to compete with resistant employers, who by nature of the employment arrangement are much more powerful than their workers. Opponents argue that under right-to-work employees can still organize unions if they prefer, but are free not to join if they don’t want to.

No matter how you feel about Virginia’s stance on unions, the ballot initiative wants to take the status quo and make it an essentially permanent part of state law. By putting right-to-work into the state constitution, the measure’s proponents are basically asking to protect the idea from democratic majorities of the future. So that if enough Virginians decided they liked unions, and voted in representatives to support their views, they would still not be able to change the law, thanks to the constitutional change proposed now.

This is not exactly how democracy is supposed to work. The Republicans who proposed this measure are basically saying, “We don’t trust future generations to be smart enough to make the right choice on unions, so we’re taking the choice out of their hands.” Plus constitutions are supposed to be more about the secondary rules of government – how to make laws, not the laws themselves. If we go down this path, we can start legislating by constitution. We might even end up like Alabama, which practically every law gets added to the constitution – with 892 (!) amendments and counting.

In fact, the argument for this constitutional amendment is so concerning that the usually conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board actually came out in opposition to the measure. If the RTD, no fan of unions, opposes the measure, it’s probably not a good idea.

You may disagree, of course. But you should at least make sure you understand what these initiatives are asking you to do, and vote accordingly. Mark Tenia (helped along by yours truly) should have more on this on WRIC’s Monday evening news, and you can review the indispensable Ballotpedia website as well. Eat your veg!

Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @rjmarr. Follow his blog here.

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