Op-Ed: The Use of Ballot Questions Should Not Be Abused

Anthony Russo | October 29, 2014 | Elections 2014, Opinion
Ballot questions can actually circumvent the system of checks and balances that our state -- and our nation -- is built on

Anthony Russo
How many New Jerseyans truly appreciate the effect a ballot question has on their lives or even weigh in on them for that matter? It seems like every November, at the bottom of the voting screen, a question or set of questions appears asking voters to approve a measure or initiative, also known as voter referendums.

Last year, voters approved a hike in the minimum wage. This year, voters will be asked to divert a portion of the corporate business tax away from environmental cleanup programs to the preservation of open space.

Seems innocuous right? How can anyone say no to preserving open space? Or to a $1 raise in the minimum wage? Whether protecting the environment or helping those in need, the overwhelming majority of residents want to help and do the right thing in order to improve our quality of life.

The danger lies within how the question is asked, the issues covered, and the impact on New Jersey’s Constitution. Also, with historically low voter turnout for elections, are we truly reaching a consensus? Each time a ballot question is approved, our constitution is forever amended to reflect the initiative, unless another ballot question is asked or a constitutional convention is held, which has not happened since 1947. Legislation overriding a constitutional amendment cannot be enacted.

So what is the process of getting a question on the ballot? The state Legislature has to pass a concurrent resolution by at least 24 votes in the Senate and 48 votes in the General Assembly or must get majority votes in consecutive years. Unlike other legislation, concurrent resolutions do not go to the governor for approval. Instead, once passed, the resolution is processed within the New Jersey Department of State, which oversees all elections in New Jersey.

This process circumvents what our State Legislature and governor are sent to Trenton to do, which is to pass laws and implement policy beneficial to New Jersey as a whole according to their constitutionally prescribed interactive roles. We all learned early on that America was built on the notion that the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial) provide checks and balances on each other, which are so important in ensuring that our laws are properly vetted.

The Legislature should limit the use of ballot questions to statewide fiscal issues, such as bonding for schools and roads. They should not be used on labor-related issues. Legislators should not seek to avoid a branch of government simply because they cannot get their way on a matter. This undermines our democracy, it does not help it and enables our legislators to shirk the responsibility of the office they sought and to which they were elected to represent their constituents