Home Editorials Let the Voters Decide… Sometimes

Let the Voters Decide… Sometimes


My first girlfriend’s name was Lauren, and she was a catch.
Sure, we were only four and she was my next door neighbor. I hadn’t really investigated the market beyond places mom and dad allowed me to walk. But I thought I had done pretty well.
Our torrid romance was short lived. At her fifth birthday party, I found myself engaged in a discussion with another gentleman. Upon casual mention of Lauren and my budding relationship – planning to perhaps settle down and raise a child or two (we were thinking Tuscany) – he looked a bit taken aback.
“Good sir, she and I are together,” he offered.
I was rattled to the core. There must be some mistake. My soul mate… Having an affair? We immediately dashed into the living room, where she was sitting in a circle with other party attendees, and made an appeal for clarification. Who was her real boyfriend?
She bit her lip, displayed a look of genuine confusion, and bounced her eyes back and forth between the two of us. After a moment, she put her hands on her hips and said that she would decide between us.
We both took a sigh of relief. Being good democratic four year olds, we felt encouraged by this decision being made by a simple vote. And we were equally confident that our respective just and virtuous claims to her love would ultimately win the day.
And it did. In a surprise move, she employed the sneaky parliamentary trick “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” and, with that, I returned to singlehood.
Votes are troublesome creatures.
A political science professor once told me that democracy is dealing with yourself on your worst day. I think that democracy is more like dealing with the uninsured driver – who just ran his pickup into your bumper because he felt like a four inch clearance was a good idea in the middle of a snowstorm – on his worst day. But we remain a democracy. Or, to satisfy those who can’t see the nation for the sport, we are a constitutionally limited representative democratic republic.
We do our best to make a case to the people, and we hope they make the right decision. The right decision, of course, is whichever decision we’ve already made and are expectantly awaiting others to reach as well. Life is great across the finish line, come on over!
But it doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to. Sometimes we get eeny-meeny-miny-moed out of our expected victory. Which sucks.
But that’s democracy. Picking which wins and losses to recognize is not.
This past summer, I worked my tail off co-chairing (with my wife) the South Central Alaska campaign to restore our state’s coastal zone management program. It was part of a statewide ballot initiative: Ballot Measure 2. The program, which was in place for over thirty years in Alaska before the Governor and legislature balked on renewing its extension in 2011, was designed to afford Alaskans a modicum of local control over decisions that affect coastal communities. It gave us a seat at the table in discussions with industry, the state, and the feds when projects were being proposed and permitted.
Industry didn’t like it, which meant that Governor Sean Parnell didn’t like it. A “Vote No on 2” campaign reared its well funded head and blew us out of the water with over three quarters of a million dollars dumped into advertising against the initiative.
Rick Sinnot wrote at the time:

Some of the biggest contributors opposed to the initiative include the Alaska Miners Association, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corporation, ConocoPhillips, BP, Alaska Oil and Gas Association, Fairbanks Gold Mining, Inc., Donlin Gold, Hecla Greens Creek Mining Company, Pebble Partnership, and the Resource Development Council. Don’t let the names fool you. Most of the big-spending opponents aren’t Alaskan organizations. For example, 14 of the 15 member companies of the “Alaska” Oil and Gas Association are based outside of Alaska.

Shell was the top donor. Because the last thing they wanted to deal with was Alaskans having a seat at the table when their fancy drill rig ran aground Sitkalidak Island after an attempt to move it during a storm to avoid paying property taxes. I imagine there would have been a lot of questions.
Governor Parnell was left with a really, really bad public relations situation at the exact same time a new really, really Republican legislature was convening with explicit instruction to give companies like Shell a lot more money. But Parnell had allowed to expire the single program that would ensure Alaskans had a seat at the table to ask Shell just what the hell they were thinking. He was forced to send out a weak kneed press release kindly asking that the feds include us in on a conversation we had walked away from.
His excuse? Democracy.
“Alaskans have spoken on coastal management,” said Parnell’s press secretary, Sharon Leighhow, in an email Friday morning, echoing earlier comments by the governor. “There has been no discussion on reinstating the program.”
In the same Juneau Empire piece, reporter Mark D. Miller indicated that Speaker of the House Mike Chenault “suggested Friday that he feels voters have already weighed in.”
Coastal zone management is dead because the people decided. Who are legislators to disagree with democracy (albeit democracy using performance enhancing corporate financing) in action?
Six years ago, there was another Ballot Measure 2. This one also had to do with industry; specifically, the shipping industry. More specifically, cruise ships.
2006’s Measure 2 imposed a $46 head tax on people wishing to visit Alaska on a cruise liner. But it also set up a new way that we permit sewage on those ships. As Ballotopedia described the bill:
“[Ballot Measure 2] would assess a $4 per passenger berth fee and require large cruise ships to have state-employed marine engineers (Ocean Rangers) licensed by the Coast Guard to observe health, safety and wastewater treatment and discharge operations. It would authorize citizen lawsuits against an owner or operator of a large cruise ship, or against the Department of Environmental Conservation, for an alleged violation of any permit condition, provision of environmental statutes or performance of duties. It would also enable a person who provides information leading to enforcement of the law to receive 25 to 50 percent of fines imposed.”
The people decided. And they liked the idea of making water quality criteria a part of the permitting process for cruise ships that wished to profit off of Alaska’s pristine waters. The measure passed by popular vote.
But something about this vote was different for Governor Parnell and Speaker Chenault. This time, the defense of “the people have decided” was replaced wholesale by a bill passed through the house to repudiate the will of the people and roll back the legislation Alaskans voted to put in place. The reason, as explained by the state Department of Environmental Conservation Larry Hartig, was that cruise ships were being burdened with criteria that other entities were not held to. By Hartig’s own admission, the cruise ships had met the requirements put in place by voters in 2006, except for when it came to ammonia and dissolved copper, nickel, and zinc.
Those are kind of a big salmon killing deal. The voters felt the same way.
Where did democracy go? What happened to the will of the people being the moral compass that guides the elected officials who take on the charge of representing their constituents?
At a press conference on Friday morning, House Speaker Mike Chenault took a moment to pontificate about 2012’s unsuccessful coastal zone initiative: “It’s interesting about voter initiatives, what passes and what fails, and what people think are important enough, and whose voice should we as legislators listen to.”
Legislators listen to the voices who agree with them. Join us across the finish line, they say. It’s great over here. Democracy be damned. The will of the people along with it. The electorate becomes a pawn in a public relations battle. We’re just a side note in a larger strategy to make sure the powers that be don’t get eeny-meeny-miny-moed out of office. And we should object.