51%

A mortifying figure to many — a low barrier indeed to tyranny in a direct democracy:

“Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths… A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.” (James Madison, Federalist Paper #10, page 81, 1788)

Let the People enact into law their own initiatives and that day’s prevailing majority would forever abolish the rights of every minority — the return of Christian white rule in America.

Now let’s think this through:

Statutory or constitutional initiatives, in order to be certified and placed upon a state ballot today, first require proof of their potential popular support by written signature, those of a small but significant sampling of the voting public.

Currently some states, like California and Oklahoma, do not stipulate that such signatures originate from any particular regions of the state. While states like Florida and Montana do require that a broad distribution of signatures among the states’ respective congressional and state legislative districts be established.

Federal courts several times have struck down county-based signature distribution requirements, reasoning that they prove prohibitively costly in sparsely-populated rural counties and that they over-represent the residents there in relation to the densely-populated, urban counties.

But what if a distribution requirement covered the voting precincts themselves? Election precincts are designed to accommodate a roughly equivalent number of voters throughout America. In 2004 these only ranged in size between an average of 407 voters in Kansas and 2,704 in the District of Columbia. And our polling stations are chosen with the intention of providing easy access to precinct residents — schools, churches and other public buildings.

So what if an overwhelming majority of these precincts, i.e. 95%, were required to certify any proposed initiative? Thus the broadest possible voter support would be necessary to certify it, among the most diverse swath of the voting public.

So why not then a 100% requirement? Well, perhaps a single precinct ought not be empowered, whether due to its general political recalcitrance or its unchanging political indifference, to effectively veto any and all proposed initiatives, local, state or national, at the very first stage of passage.

But the real question is: Would anything be certified? Wouldn’t this 95% requirement effectively slow the gears of a 51% majority? In a county of twenty precincts, nineteen would have to certify an initiative proposal just to alter a county ordinance. If just two precincts were predominantly opposed to an initiative, it would not be certified.

Imagine, under this 95% rule, trying to certify a national initiative — or even a state initiative.

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Well, what good then is this new direct democracy, you might ask, if no law could ever be changed?

That depends upon the territorial ambitions of the would-be reformer. The larger the political geography over which a proposed initiative might hold sway, the more difficult its certification would be. A downward pressure would thus be placed upon the aim of would-be lawmakers, who, more often than not, would limit the scope of their initiatives to their own local communities — likely to their own precincts.

Is it probable then that a white, Christian majority could impose itself upon the nation as a whole — or even upon an entire state? Conversely, would it be so intolerable if, within a single voting precinct — a community of no more than a few thousand — a Christian majority marked its unique values upon local ordinances there?

Before reflexively answering yes, think of Chinatown in San Francisco. Would it really be so objectionable were visitors required to remove their shoes when entering public buildings there — within a district where rickshaws and bicycles might dominate the streets?

Likewise, if here and there a strictly representative number of Christian precincts sprang up — where liquor stores and gambling were prohibited, for instance — would this be more objectionable than the former example?

Surely the most likely argument against this precinct-by-precinct diversification is that, even within the voting precinct, our smallest political subdivision, a voting majority would impose its values upon a minority. And were it not for specific provisions within this new proposed constitution, the resulting changes might even hamper trade and travel between the states.

But at what point are we empowered to live publicly by our private values — expressing the fullness of our own diversity? Must we confine our soundest values to our front lawns or from behind our front doors? Must some do so, while others do not?

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Remember, our civil rights receive special protection within the Constitution, whose laws are more difficult to alter than our statutory federal and state laws and our local ordinances. This accrues both to the good and to the bad. The amendment process is in fact so involved, even leaving aside congressional hyper-partisanship, that the last amendment ratified, a limitation on congressional pay in 1992, was first submitted — to the very first Congress — in 1789.

Our nation, particularly in the last several presidential elections, has proven well split politically. Thus the proposal proposed herein, of a 67% national majority requirement to amend the Constitution — particularly when one takes into account the 95% precinct distribution requirement — would preclude all but the most urgent, broadly supported measures.

Given the right system, then, that mortifying 51% majority would be of little or no concern, either nationally or even statewide. It would often only establish clear majority ownership of ultra-local issues. It also would preclude endless run-off initiatives, which might tax even a newly invigorated electorate.

So, is the prospect of a direct democracy still so awful frightening? Couldn’t we, the People, benefit and grow with more local autonomy and greater national tolerance? Don’t answer reflexively, in the manner you were taught.

Instead, read once more, by this new political light, the words of our most famous Founding Father.

“The way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defense of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, law, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph C. Cabell, February 2, 1816)

2 responses to “51%

  1. A very thought provoking post (this from the UK where we do not have such freedoms as you already enjoy). The quote from Jefferson is a killer; anyone who currently enjoys the privileges and rights of the American constitution cannot deny the truth of this without simultaneously denying every freedom they currently enjoy. QED

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