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Initiative, Referendum, and Recall--not available in New York.

Currently, half the U.S., excluding New York State, has the power to exercise at least one of three popular devices that give citizens the rare opportunity to have control over legislative actions and unfavorable laws in their state. Often called direct or participant democracy, they are known as Initiative, Referendum, and Recall, constitutional amendments that give citizens the power to create their own laws, vote on laws that have been enacted, or remove elected officials from office.

Put in simplest terms, the Initiative allows citizens to both introduce and enact laws and constitutional amendments and place them on a ballot for a popular vote, the Referendum provides for a popular vote on laws passed by the legislature, and Recall allows for the removal of an elected official.

Among the three methods, the initiative procedure is the most popular. 24 states have the initiative in either its direct or indirect form, which makes a significant difference in how much power is actually placed in the hands of citizens, and how easily the question or "measure" of concern is placed on the ballot for a vote. In the direct form, qualifying measures are places directly on the ballot, whereas in the indirect form, they are submitted to the state legislature for further action. There are 14 states that have the direct initiative, and five states that have the indirect process.

In most states, a majority vote is all that is needed for a measure to be passed and a law enacted. However, in some states, such as Mississippi, Nebraska, and Massachusetts, the votes cast must equal a percentage of the votes that were cast in the last election.

Sometimes, what follows an initiative is a referendum, or direct vote by the citizens for or against the law that has been initiated. A referendum can also be used by citizens to stop unfavorable legislative proposals from becoming law, in most cases, with a majority vote. A prime example of the power of the referendum has recently occurred in South Dakota, which was coincidentally the first state to adopt the initiative and referendum in 1898.

On May 30th, South Dakotans stalled the progress of one of the strictest anti-abortion bills that was signed by governor Mike Rounds in March, and was supposed to take effect on July 1st.

South Dakota has the popular referendum, which is a petition based referendum that allowed them to stop the abortion ban until voters make the final decision in the next election. The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families succeeded in filing a petition containing 38,416 signatures, which is twice the amount needed for the proposal to go directly on the ballot.

At this point, given a similar scenario, a state that also has the recall amendment would have the power to possibly remove an elected official from office if they deemed so necessary. A recall differs from an impeachment in that all that is needed to remove or replace an official is a majority vote in an election.

Currently, 18 states permit a recall, including California, which exercised the power in 2003 when Governor Gray Davis was removed in a Recall campaign led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won a special election to replace him.

These three methods can be powerful tools for a democratic society to utilize. They allow citizens hands-on involvement in legislative actions and stimulate the desire to become more directly involved with controversial issues. Therefore, it may seem that the states that are not free to exercise these methods, such as New York State, are at a disadvantage.

For example, in 2003, thousands of students protested Pataki's proposal to hike tuition costs and cut financial aid programs at public universities. Students at the University at Albany and surrounding community colleges alike attempted to use petitions to change the policy, but without any type of referendum supported by the NYS Constitution, it would have been near impossible for students to stop the proposal from taking an effect if had been approved.

According to Joseph F. Zimmerman, a Professor of Political Science at Rockefeller College of the State University of New York at Albany, and author of The Government and Politics of New York State (New York: New York University Press, 1981), the state does not support these methods. "The State Legislature by statute could authorize voters to use each of the three popular devices, but does not favor them," he said.

He believes the legislative body is hesitant about giving citizens control over their reserved powers. "Most legislators oppose the protest referendum because the device can be utilized to repeal laws they enacted", he said. Zimmerman believes most legislators oppose the initiative that allows voters to go around the legislature to place a proposition on the referendum ballot, like voters were able to do in South Dakota with the abortion ban.

In order to obtain a law authorizing initiative, referendum, and recall, a constitutional convention would need to be called for the proposal to be placed on the ballot. Once every 20 years, a question of calling a constitutional convention appears automatically on the ballot, the next of which would be held in 2017. However, although the legislature could call one at any time, the last has not occurred since 1966 because voters have declined to have one called in previous elections.

Yet Zimmerman supports the enactment of the law. "If these devises were available in New York State, the nature of the political system would change dramatically and for the better."

Supporters of the law believe the initiative and referendum processes can increase the responsiveness of the legislature by improving their performance and accountability, can increase voter turnout and citizen interest, and provide a way of enacting reforms the legislature is unwilling or unable to act on.

Ben Stenson, the deputy director at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, thinks that in general terms, the law could be an interesting change for New Yorkers, but believes that constant changes in the legislative system and the initiation of multiple proposals could be harmful. "The initiative proposal could have adverse consequences if you continue to add them throughout the years," he said.

If the system gets out of control, it could have unintended consequences for how the government operates." Stenson says he would prefer to have a convention to look at everything together. Therefore, he concluded, "The more sweeping the changes caused by the proposals, the more you need to look at comprehensive reforms instead of individual piecemeal changes."
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Title Annotation:New York State News
Author:Mele, Arcangela
Publication:The Informed Constituent (Albany, NY)
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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