Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The People Govern?

By Shawn Healy
Democracy at its very roots means government by the people, for the people. In practice we have departed from the Greek city-state given the expansive nation that the United States has become. Instead, we practice democracy through leaders we elect. More than a century ago, a national reform movement spawned a political party known as the Progressives, and among an array of reforms including the primary, they introduced a more direct form of democracy called the referendum. Here voters decide directly upon laws, constitutional amendments, even calling conventions to create new constitutions, in some cases bypassing their elected leaders altogether.

Next Tuesday, in addition to selecting the 44th president, our 111th Congress, and thousands of state legislators, voters in several states will decide upon referenda that may change the very complexion of civil rights, social welfare, and even government itself. Atop the radar is a pitched battle over the constitutionality of gay marriage in California, where state voters consider Proposition 8, a referendum to ban homosexual unions and overturn the May 2008 state supreme court decision that deemed them constitutional. To date, Connecticut and Massachusetts are the only other states where gay marriages are legal.

In Senator John McCain's home state of Arizona, voters may act preemptively on the issue of government-provided health care like that provided in his opponent's plan. Their southwestern neighbor, Colorado, and the adjacent Great Plains State of Nebraska, will consider anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives that have passed previously in California, Washington, and Michigan. These efforts are led by African-American businessman Ward Connerly, who believes that Senator Barack Obama's presidency could spell the end of race-based preferences if he chose to take a leadership role on this issue. Obama actually opposes these initiatives, while Connerly counts McCain as a supporter and his candidate of choice.

In Obama's Illinois, voters are asked to decide whether the state should hold another constitutional convention in 2010, forty years after the current document was drafted. For approval, 60 percent of voters who answer the question or a majority of voters overall must answer in the affirmative. The Illinois Constitution is viewed by many as one of the most progressive in the country. It protects the rights of women, individuals with disabilities, and forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, race or ethnicity.

Its detractors deplore its lack of a recall mechanism (especially with the wildly unpopular Governor Rod Blagojevich top of mind), its guarantee of a two party system given the winner-takes-all mechanism employed in legislative contests, therefore yielding unified party control as we have witnessed since 2002, and its failure to mandate state funding for education. The state has proceeded to pass the buck to local taxpayers, yielding major inequities by jurisdiction through differential property tax bases and the second lowest level of state-based education funding in the country.

Others lament the pervasive corruption that characterizes the state, and argue that the only way out is to scrap the document that employs these rascals. However, those in favor of retaining the current constitution offer a simple mechanism for change, namely throwing these same rascals out of office on Election Day. A diverse coalition has formed to protest the high costs of calling a convention and voice fear that the same power brokers who we detest and distrust will have their dirty hands upon any new document when the dust settles. They suggest that we use the amendment process instead, addressing our grievances against the state government one by one, and avoiding the take it or leave it document that a constitutional amendment would yield. Once created, it would be placed before voters for an up or down vote.

My two posts this week taken together, I urge you to scrutinize the races and ballot measures beneath our presidential candidates. A President McCain or Obama will likely bring change from the existing regime and offer dramatically different visions for America, but the matters that affect us on a daily basis happen closer to home.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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