CHAPTER SUMMARY AND KEY TERMS
State constitutions have evolved to the point where they often provide civil rights greater than those guaranteed in the federal constitution. This phenomenon has been termed judicial federalism and it is reminiscent of the early history of the United States. The original thirteen state constitutions were based largely on the colonial charters and represented limited government by an aristocracy, but they did establish some enduring principles: a bill of rights, separation of powers, and a system of checks and balances. They also reflected distrust toward executive authority and vested most power in the legislatures.
Because legislative bodies had difficulty meeting the demands of a rapid growing society and coping with the changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution, the power of the executive branch was increased. The centralizing power shift was somewhat diluted by pressures in the Jacksonian era for popular election of government officials. The result was an increasingly fragmented executive branch.
Erosion in confidence in state government, as well as broader social and economic changes, led to
increasing amendments and even complete revision of state constitutions in the latter part of the 1800s and early 1900s. By the 1950s, many states had long, archaic, unnecessarily detailed constitutions. Only the original constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts survives, although amended more than one hundred times. It remains a model of the composite wisdom of the foremost political philosophers of the eighteenth century.
Excessive detail in other state constitutions inevitably led to burdensome litigation in the state courts. But constitutional change is a more complex process than legislative enactment of statutes, and resistance to change by special interests slowed efforts to modernize. Nevertheless, supporters of reform eventually gathered a number of influential voices in the 1950s for a return to using state constitutions as fundamental law and the abandonment of the practice of using them as a catchall for topics best left to statutory law. Most noteworthy among the voices were the Presidential Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (known as the Kestnbaum Commission) and the National Municipal League. The latter developed a Model State Constitution that was to serve as an influential guide for efforts to rewrite state constitutions. The results of these efforts at reform are reflected in many of today’s more concise and practical state constitutions.
State constitutions are political documents, and detailed provisions intended to protect or favor special interests creep into the best of them. Thomas Jefferson thought that it was appropriate to adjust constitutions every twenty years. Two constitutional traditions appear in modern efforts at reform—the positivist-law tradition by which detailed and lengthy documents usurp the lawmaking powers of the legislature, or the higher-law tradition represented by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions and the National Municipal League’s Model State Constitution. There is no one right way, but today the latter formula seems to be most in favor.
There are informal and formal methods for amending state constitutions. Interpretation of the existing constitution to meet new problems by any of the three branches of government constitutes the single informal method. Among those who interpret the constitution, state supreme courts increasingly exercise a right of judicial review, a step that now earns some state courts a reputation as judicial activists.
The formal procedures for constitutional change are legislative proposal, initiative, constitutional convention, and constitutional commission. All involve two basic steps: an initiation step by the legislature or a constitutional initiative by the voters, followed by the second and final step—ratification. The proposed amendment, whatever its origins, requires voter approval.
Initiation by legislative proposal, permitted in all fifty states, is most common and most often
successful. Eighteen states permit citizens to initiate action, but those proposals succeed less often in the ratification step. All fifty states provide for constitutional conventions, and four states consider such conventions every ten or twenty years. Voters tend to be more skeptical of sweeping change, and delegates are well advised to consider presentation of piecemeal change rather than an all-inclusive one.
Constitutional commissions or study commissions may be created by the governor or legislative action in all states. A commission’s efforts are advisory and popular with elected officials because they may avoid volatile issues using the commission as a symbolic effort. In Florida, however, the commission can send its proposals directly to the voters. In all, only twenty-eight commissions have operated in all fifty states since 1970, but they have the capacity to provide high-quality and inexpensive research.
The old-style constitutions inhibited the states’ abilities to cope with change. Revisions carried out in the four decades since the Kestnbaum Commission report have aided in the modernization of state government and its ability to regain a strong place in the federal system. Since the mid-1960s some forty states have substantially amended or adopted new constitutions. Problems persist, but state constitutions are, in general, much improved over those that existed forty years ago. They are increasingly documents for the ages rather than documents designed to fulfill the needs of the moment.
Module 4 (Chapters 4 and 5)
Chapter 4: Citizen Participation and Elections
This chapter covers the following:
Citizen Access to Government
The Effects of Citizen Participation
After reading this chapter, students should be able to understand:
1. How and why people participate in American representative democracy.
2. The struggle by women and African Americans for the right to vote and current efforts to increase voting by all citizens.
3. The variations in the primary election systems in the states and the reasons for the use of runoff
elections in some states.
4. The pattern of recent outcomes in the gubernatorial and legislative elections in the fifty states.
5. The use of initiative, referendum, and recall at the state and local level.
6. The various devices employed by state and local government to increase citizen participation.
CHAPTER SUMMARY AND KEY TERMS
Democracy assumes citizen participation, but evidence of low voter turnouts suggests that many
citizens are not much interested in elections. The traditional nonvoters—low income and less
educated—forego any chance that vote-seeking candidates might pay attention to their needs. In a
participatory democracy, voting is the most common form of exercising civic responsibility, but there are other methods of participating. William E. Lyons and David Lowery have categorized the potential responses (see Figure 4.1 in the text).
Voting is an example of passive, constructive, and “loyal” behavior; contacting officials is an example of an active, constructive use of “voice” in participating; leaving the community is a type of active, destructive participation termed “exit”; and simply ignoring chances to participate is a passive, destructive behavior categorized as “neglect.”
Nonparticipation in elections can be explained by socioeconomic status. Individuals with lower levels of income and education participate less than wealthier, more educated individuals do. Other explanations include age, gender, and race. Nonparticipation in elections also can partly be explained by age. In recent elections those between eighteen and twenty-nine years of age made up only 6 percent of the voters and 38 percent of the nonvoters. Younger people participate less than middle-aged individuals; women have participated less than men; and, blacks have participated less than whites.
However, only age seems to continue to affect participation. Women and minorities now participate significantly more than in the past. Institutional features, such as the complexity of registering to vote, also explain nonvoting. The right to vote in this country originally went only to white, propertied males.
Those requirements were eventually dropped, but women, blacks, and Native Americans had a longer struggle. Women were enfranchised in all states in 1920 as a result of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 had given the vote to blacks, but they were denied those rights in many states until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment (1964), and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today nine southern states and parts of seven others must still submit changes in election laws or procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice for which required proof of “intent” to discourage minority voting.
Voting registration and voter turnout increased in the 1990s, stimulated in large part by the media. Generally, voting turnout is higher in presidential election years, stimulated by attractive candidates running a close race and encouraged by distinctive ideological stances in competitive elections. There are noteworthy differences among states in registration procedures and voter turnout. States with moralistic political cultures have higher voter turnout than traditionalistic ones. States with competitive political parties have higher turnouts, as do those with easier voter registration procedures.
In the 2000 elections, voter turnout was the highest in Minnesota (68.8 percent) and lowest in Hawaii (40.1 percent). Typically, voter turnout is lowest in southern states and in states that have many poor citizens.
California has the highest number of welfare recipients in the nation and despite its reputation for
initiatives and citizen participation tends to consistently rank low in voter turnout. To encourage voting many states have adopted a system whereby citizens can register by mail. The National Voter Registration Act was passed in 1993. It allows citizens to register to vote when they
register an automobile or get driver’s licenses. Some states are moving the deadline for registration closer to the date of the election, and four states allow citizens to register on Election Day.
Only NorthDakota requires no voter registration. Absentee balloting is easier than it used to be, and seven states allow early balloting. Ironically, recent research has shown that voters and nonvoters do not hold significantly different policy preferences. Thus, high voter turnout might not affect outcomes.
When government doesn’t respond to messages from the electorate, citizens are increasingly using ballot propositions to make their own laws. Initiatives are proposed laws or constitutional amendments that are placed on the ballot by citizen petition. The mechanism for legislation by popular vote was a reform introduced in the Progressive Era (circa 1890 to 1920). The popular referendum and recall were also products of this era.
The popular referendum begins with a petition to put the question on the ballot to overturn a legislative action, whereas the general referendum puts a proposition on the ballot for
citizen approval before it takes effect. Today twenty-four states allow the initiative, with Mississippi the most recent addition. A few states use the indirect initiative, where the legislature may act first on the question and only after the legislature rejects it does the citizenry get a chance to vote.
The first step in the initiative process involves a petition, and the petition signature requirement varies from state to state. California has transformed signature gathering into a science, most recently using direct mail. The 1950s and 1960s saw little use of the initiative, but the 1970s saw the processre activated by environmentalists, consumers, and tax limitation organizations. The return of the initiative is seen by some as a return to populism or Progressivism.
The 1990s find even greater reliance on it for getting tougher on crime, setting term limits, and tightening campaign finance laws. But taxation and gambling questions fared less well in the initiative process in a number of states.
Although most state initiatives draw little national attention, some do. These include initiatives in Arizona and California to legalize the use of marijuana for medical use and California’s Proposition 209, where voters upended affirmative action.
Despite the popularity of initiatives, typically most initiatives are defeated.
Troubling questions arise over the wisdom of direct democracy. Can simple yes-or-no ballot questions really reflect options or develop compromise? Legislatures are deliberative bodies, not instant problem solvers. Ballot questions are low-information elections. Well-financed business and religious groups take advantage of this. Some initiative reformers think that the public should be informed about the financial sponsors of the propositions offered to voters.
At its extreme the initiative process can become electronic democracy. Several states have
experimented with it, while the National Conference of State Legislatures is seeking ways to prevent usurpation of lawmakers’ prerogatives. Legislators are proceeding cautiously given the recent review. Currently federal government action follows if the “effects” of these state changes discourage popularity of initiatives. And even as the question of reining in use of the device is examined, in 1994 four states considered and then rejected putting the question of the use of initiatives to its citizens.
Recalls were once a little-used mechanism in state and local governments, and only fifteen states provide for recall of state officials. In six of those, judicial officers are exempt. Even in states without recall, many city and county charters provide for its use. Recall efforts usually involve a public perception of official misconduct. The number of recalls grew during the 1980s and perhaps the most notable was the 1988 effort to recall Arizona Governor Evan Mecham, who was impeached instead.
The recall of California Governor Gray Davis in 2003 brought national attention to the process of
recall. Davis became only the second governor in the history of the nation to be recalled from office. (The only other governor to be successfully recalled was North Dakota’s Lynn J. Frazier in 1921).
The rationale for the recall is simple—public officials should be subject to continuous voter control. One survey found two-thirds of those questioned wanted that power with respect to Congress. The public, rather than participating less, may be seeking mechanisms that make it easier for them to participate.
Increasing the capacity of state and local governments depends on citizen participation. It may not be easy to foster or efficient to use, but in a democracy it is the ultimate test of legitimacy of that government.
The irony of the American political system is that state and local governments’ encouragement of citizen participation may not make them run more efficiently. It will cause some to question the wisdom of too much direct democracy. But there seems little question that non national governments must provide an array of options for citizen involvement, because in the long run it will enhance their capabilities, vigor, and innovativeness.
The presidential election of 2000 illustrated the importance of the role of the states in national elections. The Florida recount will be remembered for years—an election that will be recalled for illustrating the inadequacies of punch card voting machines, chads, and the involvement of the state and federal courts.
The election also shows the importance of political participation as one of the closest presidential elections in the nation’s history was decided by only a few votes.
Chapter 5: Political Parties, Interest Groups, and Campaigns
This chapter covers the following:
After reading this chapter, students should be able to understand:
1. An ideal way that political parties in the United States might be measured.
2. The organization of typical state political parties and the patterns and consequences of party competition in the states.
3. The nature of interest groups and their role in influencing state and local governments.
4. The role of lobbyists in the state capitols.
5. The origins of political action committees (PACs), the nature of their increasing role in the states, and the efforts made by states to limit their power.
6. The changing nature of political campaigning, the high costs of funding those campaigns, and the nature of efforts to avoid the excesses that arise from efforts to raise campaign money.
7. The problems for the states and local government portended by the changes in political parties, interest groups, and political campaigns.
American political parties are evolving, and a debate continues over whether our political parties are declining or becoming invigorated. A “responsible party model” describes the ideal, but American parties fall somewhat short of that mark.
Political parties are loosely organized coalitions of likeminded individuals that in the states rely most heavily on county-level organizations. Although many people identify with the party of their parents, they hold that identification increasingly lightly and show a penchant for ticket splitting.
Each state party has a charter or by-laws to govern its operation and, typically, is headed by a state committee. State party organizations vary greatly in organizational vitality and resources. Republican organizations generally outstrip Democratic ones on the size of their salaried staff and on financial resources.
County party committee members are chosen at the precinct level and are volunteers. They
are less professional than the state organization and few operate year-round offices. The local party organizations range from fragmented, part-time activities to cohesive, experienced, and professional organizations able to offer candidates a range of services.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties contain elements from across the ideological spectrum, although the distribution of conservatives and liberals in each party is distinct. The Republican ideological distribution is one of increasing conservatism, whereas the Democrats display moderate party leaders buffering two equally divergent groups holding different ideologies and opposing views on campaign issues.
However, evangelical Christian activists, who want an even more conservative
Republican Party, have challenged local Republican Parties. By 1994 the Christian right controlled many local Republican Party conventions, had captured many local races, and dominated the Republican governing organization in eighteen states and were very influential in thirteen others.
General elections in the United States are usually two-party contests and have been for the past 150 years. Explanations for institutionalization of a two-party system now focus on the structure of the electoral system. Parties compete in elections where there is only one winner and no reward for second or third.
States vary in their level of political competition. Most fall into the “substantial two-party competition” category. The days when one party virtually ran state government are largely gone. For many states two-party competition has taken a new tack in favor of the Republicans.
Beyond electoral competition, which party controls the major policymaking institutions is important. Divided government is not uncommon, and until the late 1980s Republican influence in state institutions was declining or, as in the South, all but nonexistent.
By the 1990s, Democratic fortunes had declined even in the South. Thus, two-party competition is spreading at a time when states are becoming a battleground for resolution of tough issues; competition should bring a wider search for solutions and greater innovation in the states. Political parties are still viable in the American political system.
Interest groups have become powerful players in our system. Some individuals join interest groups to communicate their preferences to government, whereas others are attracted to join by the benefits the group makes available to members. Interest groups come in all shapes and sizes, and many rely on lobbyists in the state capitol to influence public policy. Interests represented in the capitol lobby are as varied as in the states.
A ranking of the 20 most influential lobbies in the 50 states shows schoolteachers’ associations, general business organizations, and utility companies and their associations at the top of the list. Many state-level interest groups are ideological and seek political activity oriented toward some higher good: clean air, fairer tax systems, consumer protection, and so on.
A lobbyist is often defined in the states as anyone receiving compensation to influence legislative action. Some states require lobbyists to register. For some, the requirement exists even for unpaid representatives of various interests. The number of lobbyists varies greatly from state to state, and most states require lobbyists to file reports on expenditures and assess stiff penalties for violations.
Scandals in a number of states have led to prohibitions against giving gifts to legislators and prohibitions against public officials taking them. Interests affected by state government cannot afford to be without representation. To be effective, lobbyists must have access and so they cultivate relationships with lawmakers.
For their part, lawmakers need information on how legislation might affect different interests and the ability of a lobbyist in providing this information is of increasing importance as the states take on new tasks. Some interest groups, to show support for some action, rely on “grassroots lobbying” where orchestrated public demonstrations or evidence of support in the form of mail, faxes, and telephone calls is used.
PACs are narrowly focused subsets of interest groups and are making extensive inroads into state politics. PACs collect funds and distribute them to candidates. They were created when corporations and labor unions were barred from making contributions directly to the candidate. They are often seen as a threat to political parties as recruiters of candidates and financiers of campaigns, and many states have reacted by increasing regulations. In short, PACs are the campaign financing arms of corporations, labor unions, trade associations, and other interest groups.
State and local political campaigns are no longer old-fashioned, unsophisticated operations. They are influenced by modern campaign technology and financing. The mass media, particularly television, ensure that campaign information is available to everyone, and capturing media attention is increasingly sophisticated.
But free media time is seldom sufficient; candidates must also rely on paid advertisements to get their message to the public. The image of the candidate and negative images of the opponent can be easily transmitted via the TV screen. Much of this is made possible by the development of a new occupational specialty—the political consultant, who provides expertise in polling, direct mail campaigning, fund raising, advertising, and campaign management.
Political parties, interest groups, and campaigns are part of the democratic system. Ideally, the system keeps government working in the public’s interest. Considerable change, now under way in the components of the system, makes it difficult to assess their eventual impact on state and local government, but the vitality of those governments depends on the outcome.