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Outside View: The evolving role of the referendum

By FRANK J. MADURI, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Nov. 22, 2013 at 12:04 AM
NEW YORK, Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Two weeks ago, all across the United States, citizens with the right to vote once again went to their local polling place to exercise one of the greatest rights provided under the U.S. democratic system of law.

In many states, not only did those same voters cast ballots for the candidates they felt would best represent their interests, they were also asked a question or set of questions in the referendum voting section of the ballot.

Now, the utilization of the referendum is far from being a new concept. However, the types of questions and their potential consequences have become increasingly complex.

In a new world of high-speed Internet, "4G" wireless networks and seemingly ubiquitous smartphones and tablets; the American people have become further conditioned to instant gratification. The concept of the referendum vote has a similar causality in this new fast-paced society.

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Mobilization

The innovation of social media has enabled Americans, and in fact, most of the civilized world, to mobilize behind a particular cause very rapidly. This has resulted in a more concerted push for certain initiatives in the U.S. political system.

The effect of this mobilization is, at times, political action by the appropriate legislative body; given that the right amount of traction is gained in the electorate on a particular issue.

The elected political officials will often accelerate the process of proposing a bill to address the issue because often they have social media accounts themselves. Therefore, elected officials can monitor social media activity of their constituencies and formulate a strategy to directly address some of the more pressing issues. It is an evolving new forum for democratic action to take place.

In the event that the attempts by elected officials fail to result in the successful passage of a law, further steps can be taken. The issues or topics that gain the most support from the electorate can be selected for inclusion on the ballot for a referendum vote.

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The Second Phase

Once the issues have been selected for the referendum vote, the second phase of the process begins. It is a two-pronged approach:

-- The framing of the referendum ballot question

-- The response and action of major parties

The wording and positioning of the ballot question on a referendum is important and each state has a particular protocol by which this is eventually accomplished.

The response and action taken by major parties also can play a large role in the outcome of a referendum question. Depending on the issue or question being posed, the major parties fund what amounts to a completely separate campaign promoting their respective view on the proposed new action on the ballot.

The role of instant gratification in this process is that, very often, if the referendum measure is approved it will become law in that state immediately following the tabulation and approval of the election results. That type of quick action, cutting through the red tape of the legislative process, is very appealing to many Americans.

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A 'Win, Win' Approach

Several counties in northern Colorado exerted so much political pressure that they were granted a referendum ballot question.

The mobilization and organization of the residents of eight counties in northern Colorado were united behind the cause that resulted in the statewide referendum of whether they could secede from Colorado and form the 51st U.S. state, which they proposed to call North Colorado.

The impetus behind the petition for secession from Colorado is that the residents in the northern counties feel neglected by the state government in Denver because the population in the city has changed dramatically with the influx of people from other parts of the country.

This same influx is affecting other states, too, where the population demographics of the cities have changed and the residents of outlying areas have remained largely the same. Those rural residents feel that the state government in the cities no longer adequately understands the issues that they face on their farms and in their small towns.

The referendum measure failed and those counties remain part of Colorado but in losing they have achieved their goal. It has been reported that the officials in Denver have taken notice, due to the referendum, and have moved the issues that affect the northern counties into a priority status moving forward.

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New Jersey -- Raising the Minimum

In New Jersey, the referendum question dealt with the minimum wage and whether it should be raised. The measure included the provision for subsequent increases of the minimum wage to comply with cost-of-living standards in the future.

The stakes in the New Jersey referendum were high, since the state legislature had previously attempted to raise the minimum wage, the proposed ballot question would add an amendment to the New Jersey State Constitution that would legalize the minimum wage increases to comply with the cost-of-living adjustments.

The referendum measure passed by a large margin and the State Constitution will be amended to reflect the new law.

In the end, the effectiveness of the referendum voting mechanism is going to become more prevalent, the issues and solutions being proposed are going to become more consequential and this new forum for democratic action in an ever-changing society will be more far reaching.

We, as a democratic people, have to ask ourselves if we are ready for that increased responsibility. We have to determine if we have adequate access to the required information on these issues. We have to resolve if we, as a society, are equipped to decide the course of the future for the generations of Americans to follow.

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(Frank J. Maduri is a freelance writer and journalist with publishing credits for a variety of news organizations and websites. He has a background in political science and has worked as a volunteer on numerous local and national level political campaigns.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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