Opinion: A national referendum wouldn’t solve problems, it would create them

Much like Tom Steyer’s presidential campaign, it’s a bad idea to make federal decisions via popular vote.


Katie Goodale

Democratic candidate Tom Steyer laughs with moderator Art Cullen during the Teamsters Presidential Candidate Forum in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.

Jason O'Day, Columnist

Businessman Tom Steyer has a plethora of ideas, and has spent millions of dollars parading those ideas around with online ads. While his Democratic nomination has gone nowhere, lots of his policy positions are worth exploring.

Most of the billionaire’s schemes are counterproductive, but perhaps the worst one is holding national referendums on federal policy.

Democrats could not handle our small-state caucus vote tally earlier this week. In 2012, the Iowa GOP also messed up — pulling a Steve Harvey by declaring the wrong winner and correcting itself days later. 

Imagine the potential for chaos and error in a national referendum.

The results of a referendum can breed even more resentment than candidate selections, especially when results are close and subsequently contested. Some of us are still bitter about the fifth season of American Idol when Chris Daughtry may have missed out on a top-three spot.

Even when the vote is conducted legitimately, those on the losing side will try to dismiss the results or overturn them. In the case of the Brexit referendum in the U.K., many voters have spent the last four years clamoring for a second vote to reverse the first one.

A national referendum would fundamentally undermine the federalist nature of our constitutional republic.

Like the rest of politics, referendums are susceptible to demagoguery and manipulation, making them a favorite tool of oppressors. Napoleon Bonaparte often used plebiscites to justify his usurpations of power. A 2009 referendum in Switzerland prohibited Muslims from building minarets on their mosques.

In general, voters are ill-informed. A 2018 survey by C-SPAN found that 52 percent of respondents could not name a single U.S. Supreme Court justice — which makes me happy that Theodore Roosevelt failed in his 1912 populist crusade to implement judicial recall by popular vote. 

Most voters have better things to do than to pour hours of research to adequately understand ballot questions. This is why we elect representatives who dedicate much of their time studying issues, and consult with experts to make crucial decisions.

The biggest problem with referenda is that they dichotomize complex, multi-faceted issues into close ended questions. The process of voting for president, electing members of Congress, and advocating legislation can be messy but it’s better than any other way of running a country.

Sticking a wet finger in the political wind is no way to make important decisions. Public opinion sees drastic and sporadic shifts over time. According to Gallup, only 27 percent of Americans thought sending troops to Iraq was a mistake in July 2003. By August 2005, that figure had doubled to 54 percent. Rapidly changing trends can be found on topics such as same-sex marriage and gun control.

A national referendum would fundamentally undermine the federalist nature of our constitutional republic. 

What’s best for Floridians might not be best for Iowans. Policy diffusion shows us that the people closest to a problem are best equipped to solve it. The beauty of congressional districts and the Electoral College is that they minimize the impact of voter fraud or miscalculation to relatively small enclaves. If vote tallies are wrong in one state, that doesn’t necessarily skew results for the rest of the country.

Our Founding Fathers wisely understood the majority will almost always trample on the minority.  Some may call it direct democracy, but that’s simply a nicer way of saying mob rule.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.