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Ballot measures, where voters decide, offer opportunity for 'direct democracy'

Voters in 38 states will practice "direct democracy" in November when they decide on a total of more than 160 ballot measures. (.)

The U.S. has a long, proud tradition of its people voting, even if it took some time for everyone to be included.

Ever since the Constitution was ratified — at a time when democracy was not widespread -- America has had representative democracy, giving citizens the power to choose the legislators who would speak for them in the House of Representatives.

Later, they would gain the right to vote for senators. Further, amendments have been added to the Constitution over the years that helped spread the franchise to all races, to women and to 18-year-olds.

“They pour their money into a little state like Maine and these billionaires can buy a law.”

- David Trahan, former state legislator in Maine

But to many Americans, voting for representatives isn’t enough. That's why 38 states this November will offer some form of direct democracy -- generally speaking, the initiative and referendum system, whereby citizens can vote for a specific rule, if enough registered voters have signed petitions to put the question on the ballot.

The idea has actually been around from the beginning. Georgia’s constitution in 1777 allowed for initiatives. The modern initiative and referendum system began in Oregon in 1902, and has since been adopted, in one fashion or another, by numerous states.

As common as it is, many are concerned about the system, feeling that citizens’ votes are, in essence, being bought by the wealthy.

One concerned citizen is David Trahan, a political activist and former state legislator in Maine. Formerly he supported dozens of measures on the Maine ballot, but he has now changed his mind about referenda. He says he’s seen how the money flows, and doesn’t like it.

As Trahan puts it, “They pour their money into a little state like Maine and these billionaires can buy a law.” He believes outside groups with money deform a system that’s supposed to be the direct voice of the people.

Good or bad, there’s no denying a lot of hot button issues are being determined by initiative. For instance, this November:

1. Alabama, Oregon and West Virginia will vote on abortion rights.

“What better way ... than to let the people vote directly on the issues at hand?”

- Paul Jacob, ballot measure proponent

2. Idaho, Nebraska and Utah will vote on health care policies.

3. Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah will vote on gerrymandering rules.

Other issues in which the voters will have their say include tax policy and energy policy. All in all, there will be more than 160 ballot measures considered by various states.

But if people like Trahan are concerned the system has been hijacked by money, others see it as part of the rough and tumble of politics, not to mention a chance for the public to be heard.

There’s Paul Jacob, for instance, who’s a longtime supporter of the ballot measure process, having worked on more than 100 initiative and referendum campaigns across the country. As he puts it, “What better way ... than to let the people vote directly on the issues at hand?”

Jacob admits that money — sometimes outside money -- comes into play, but adds that money is already part of politics, so better to give the power to the people and not just to the politicians.

For Trahan, this won’t do. “Direct democracy,” he maintains, “is Maine people passing laws that govern Maine people.” Outside interference can obstruct the process.

But Jacob believes “People who don’t like direct democracy don’t want the people to be in charge.”

Only one thing is certain: No matter how the system is viewed — corrupted beyond recognition, or a chance for the folks to have a say — this November the people will decide a lot of important matters.

Steve Kurtz is a producer for the Fox News Channel, and author of "Steve’s America (the perfect gift for people named Steve)".

Steve Kurtz Fox News

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