The recall and referendum system, so prevalent in the Western United States, was established in the 1920s and 1930s to place a check on entrenched political parties and their allies—special interest groups. The U.S. Constitution limited the direct participation of citizens in public affairs because the Founders worried that an impassioned majority would violate the rights of minorities. Political reform movements in the Western U.S. sought to increase their voice in policy-making through the use of elections that would directly legislate, thus bypassing party controlled state and local governments. The recall and referendum system has long pitted the ambitions of outside groups against political insiders.
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In Idaho, the political conflict unfolding over how to reform education is the most recent movement in a century-long political struggle of citizens to make their voices heard inside halls of power. In 2011, Idaho lawmakers passed a series of education bills designed to increase the availability of technology in the classroom, weaken unions and implement merit pay for teachers. In 2012, Idaho voters used the referendum process to reject all three bills. Surprisingly, 57 percent of voters rejected Proposition 1, and even higher percentages rejected the rest of the “Luna Laws,” which were named after Tom Luna, Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.
In 2013, among their first orders of business, state legislators introduced bills that were remarkably similar to some of the legislation that had just been rejected. Given that the “Will of the People,” as expressed through the referendum, resoundingly rejected the majority party’s bills, what motivates state legislators to introduce legislation recently repealed by popular vote?
- Limited political competition. Idaho is a one-party state, dominated by the Republican Party. Republican leaders have likely calculated that the weakness of the Democratic Party gives them carte blanche to select policies that were recently rejected by the voters.
- Electoral Rules. Recent changes in the primary system require party registration to vote in primary elections. One consequence is that more conservative candidates are likely to win GOP primary elections as a more conservative base turns out for primaries. Given the limited political competition, Idaho’s legislators are likely to be more conservative than in the recent past.
- Ideology. Idaho is an increasingly conservative state. A political ideology that promotes limited government, weak unions, and the privatization of education enjoys a strong following within the party. Thus, by introducing legislation similar to that rejected by voters, Republican state legislators are responding to the interests of their most partisan followers rather than the policy preferences of the majority of Idaho’s citizens.
- Splitting the opposition. By first introducing legislation that weakens unions, Republican leaders are signaling that they believe the union-related referendum was only successful because it was tied to two other propositions that many parents thought would have immediate and long-term negative effects on schools. Republicans are hoping to split unions and parents.
- Collective Action. It is very difficult to maintain a social movement. People get tired, their lives get busy, they move on to other activities. By introducing these bills, the Republican leadership is working under the premise that parents who volunteered time last year to reject the “Luna Laws” are less likely to mobilize this year. The time and energy cost of re-introducing the legislation is much lower than organizing opposition to those pieces of legislation. Teacher unions funded much of the collective action in 2012, which means that if the Republican Party’s strategy is correct, there will be a weaker response.
This last point demonstrates the fault lines between representative and direct democracy, the fault lines between the strategic interests of political parties and the broader, general interests of voters and parents and the fault lines between unions and parents. Parents have long organized themselves in the United States to promote their children’s educational opportunities. It is quite reasonable to expect that parents will once again organize themselves, but we shouldn’t expect to see the same level of mobilization if the Republican leadership focuses just on legislation that weakens unions. It is plausible that parents and teachers will organize themselves again to reject policies they believe will further undermine education in Idaho, but it is less likely if the legislation is restricted to weakening unions.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.