Steve May: Vermont should adopt a citizen initiative process

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve May, a 2020 Democratic candidate for state Senate in Chittenden County. May is a former member of the Vermont AFL-CIO executive board and former vice president of Champlain Valley Central Labor Council. He is a clinical social worker from Richmond, where he also served on the Selectboard.

Politics has always been personal here in Vermont and democracy is not a spectator sport. Town meeting is integral to who we are as Vermonters. Neighbors have petitioned their local, state and federal lawmakers to act in a variety of ways over the years, and when many towns have acted at their town meetings, they have sent a message heard well beyond the boundaries of our state. This is every bit as much a part of Town Meeting Day as hashing out the details of the library or public works budget.

It’s never been easier to be more cynical about politics and public life. That’s why we as a society need to support increased public engagement. Nowhere is this better done that through ballot initiative. The Vermont Constitution forbids the kind of referendum system that California has, with direct questions placed on the ballot and enacted through a public vote; however, we are allowed to enact a system similar to Massachusetts with indirect initiative. Or rather, initiative to the Legislature.

Steve May

Steve May: “[If elected], it is my intention to introduce legislation that would create an indirect initiative process for Vermont.”

It is my intention to introduce legislation that would create an indirect initiative process for Vermont. Good government groups repeatedly note that places where an initiative process exists, higher levels of of voter engagement have been demonstrated over time. Moreover, initiative and referendum campaigns align with those driven by issue advocacy over candidate elections and support a deeper level of community engagement.

Vermont has always been a beacon when it comes to citizenship, leadership and participatory democracy. Vermont has never shrieked in the face of crisis and it must not now. Our actions have never been more critically needed than they are right now. Vermonters are capable of creating a robust system that puts more participation into the process. The participation which Vermont would want to exercise to permit Vermonters the opportunity to be heard can be successfully policed, because we have institutions that work and the knowledge, people and institutions necessary to provide the appropriate oversight.

In an age where democracy itself appears to be under threat, we as citizens cannot afford to retreat. The answer at this moment in time cannot be that voting is something so precious that it needs to be treated like a Faberge egg — admired from a distance and never touched by human hands. We need to showcase a version of democracy that is muscular and robust enough to stand up to this moment in time. Anything less would be a grave threat to our freedom and our liberty.

It is clear that there are those in our world who wish to place their thumbs on the scale when it comes to voting and democracy. Their intention is clear — they wish to impose their view and blot out ours. Subverting democracy is a threat to the rule of law, period, no matter who it advances or disadvantages. Those who do so act to undermine our belief in elections as an expression of free will. This is intolerable and must not be permitted to stand under any circumstances. Elections are integral to expressing the will of free people everywhere. When words like freedom, democracy and elections become quaint notions as opposed to our God-given right enshrined in the founding documents of this Republic, we as a society lose.

Deeper engagement in our electoral process and the public square has never been more necessary. We must not stand pat in the face of this gathering threat to our freedoms. Our activity and common commitment to one another and is a call to action. More public engagement and involvement is the anecdote to those who wish to thwart our democracy.

Deepening our commitment to extend voting rights to all Vermonters through ballot initiative is an urgent, thoughtful and necessary response in the face of the events of our time.

Images courtesy of Public domain and Steve May
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8 thoughts on “Steve May: Vermont should adopt a citizen initiative process

  1. Mob rule in its purest form. For those of us who are not communists yet – very sheer…difficult to believe this is being passed off as legitimate *at all* – we are not that stupid.

    When our enemy shows us who they are we need to be paying attention – heads up.

  2. People like this democrat do not propose anything to empower individuals. Vermont is social justice ______ fill in the blank warrior country. Under this proposal every nut job nonprofit would ram public initiatives down our throats with no recourse because the liberal super majority dome dwellers would ram them through at record speed. What we should do is eliminate non-resident students from voting, limit lobbying and out of state money to politicians and create a voter recall of politicians who violate their oath of office. One more, require 10 residency in the state prior to holding state political office.

  3. This might be OK if the first thing they do is purge the voter’s list of college students that are not really VT residents and insure that no ILLEGAL aliens are voting.

  4. Do you want more gun control? Because that’s how you get more gun control. Vermont is a REPUBLIC, not a democracy. If I wanted to live under mob rule, I’d go to California. This is a HORRIBLE idea.

  5. I couldn’t disagree more, mob rule ginned up by a coalition of non-profit activist groups is certainly nothing to aspire to if we want to maintain liberty and justice for all. This would only create more advantage and disadvantage over the peoples rights, our republic protects them now.

    Increased engagement of a process for no good reason is likely to cause more harm than good!

    This is evident with the amount of legislative agenda that is lobbied for in Montpelier today. One could make a case for limiting lobbying to create agendas certainly what Steve May is suggesting would increase that very real problem we have in excess in our capital today.

    Our Republics was meant to protect Liberty not destroy it!

  6. I see no sign of “… an age where democracy itself appears to be under threat”. And I’m wary of any claim that we need “… a version of democracy that is muscular and robust’. Such claims smack of sophistry and totalitarianism.

    The devil is in the details. Any ‘citizen initiative’ process ought to be restricted to address only one topic, limit the range of acceptable topics for proposed laws, prohibit unfunded mandates, pass by 2/3rds majorities, and establish guidelines for adjudicating contradictory law. Otherwise, the democratic process takes on the appearance of mob rule. Of the 134 initiatives passed in CA, only 19 were passed by 2/3rds majorities or more. And we can see where CA is today.

    Yes, “…there are those in our world who wish to place their thumbs on the scale”. That’s why our Founders deplored a pure or direct democracy. It is why the U.S. is a constitutional republic, not a direct democracy. As Benjamin Franklin opined, “A democracy is like two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”.

    Beware the wolves in sheep’s clothing.

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