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Posted on Wed, Nov 7, 2012 : 9:28 a.m.

Fears & Hopes: Failure of representative government?

By Wayne Baker

1107 President Obama reelection photo.jpg
Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing fears and hopes about the election.

Millions cheered! But, millions grieved. Half of us re-elected President Obama. But half of us opposed him. When CNN declared the president’s re-election at 11:18 p.m., TV screens across America were filled with cheering crowds waving flags.

The victors among us were the exciting news for the cameras. But half of us didn’t see ourselves on the CNN screen for quite a while.

Something else was missed yesterday by most network-TV pundits: A key failure in our representative government was the explosion of ballot initiatives. When I went to the polls yesterday morning, I was struck by all the proposals to consider, especially several proposed changes to my home state’s constitution.

I expected them, since I keep up on such things. Still, it was a shock to see that ballot full of potential changes in our constitution.

A constitution is supposed to be about guiding principles. But these initiatives proposed changes to the constitution that would privilege certain occupational groups or certain business interests. Do these protections really belong in a state’s constitution?

Yesterday’s elections included 188 ballot questions in 38 states, according to Ballotpedia. That’s a nonprofit, nonpartisan encyclopedia that tracks and shares information about ballots nationwide. It calls itself “an interactive almanac of state politics.”

On the face of it, ballot initiatives sound like a good idea. They are an example of direct democracy—going right to the people and enabling them to make a law. Related ideas are the referendum (where the electorate can veto a law) and recalls (where the electorate can remove an elected official from office).

All of these sound like great ideas. But in our complex society, are we well served by them? After all, we are a representative democracy. We elect representatives who consider and decide on various matters. Direct democracy was workable in small villages, but does it become unwieldy in modern times?

There’s plenty of time to talk about the next four years for Democrats and Republicans, but today—let’s talk about those nearly 200 ballot initiatives …

Did you vote yesterday on specific ballot initiatives?

Did you feel well informed?

Is this the best way to govern?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.


Sarah Rigg

Wed, Nov 7, 2012 : 2:58 p.m.

I'd say that the Michigan voters soundly saying NO to all 5 measures to amend the state constitution is proof that voters DO have faith in representative government.