Commentary: Referenda and realpolitick

Dan Carpenter is a columnist for TheStatehouseFile.com and the author of “Indiana Out Loud.”

By Dan Carpenter

Whom should we allow to vote, and for what?

Not just anybody and not anything sacred, depending on which side of the left-right divide you occupy.

As restrictions on ballot access continue to proliferate in Republican-dominated states, we seem to be hearkening back to the days when democracy was a daddy affair, kept in the gentle hands of the guys who knew best. Preach all they want about voting fraud and poll security, the propertied white males behind various hurdles to franchise exercise must have noticed that they hurt the ones who love the other party.

Oh, and those "activist judges" whom the conservatives so love to decry? Even though evidence of actual fraud is negligible, the courts have been OK with picture IDs, demands for citizenship papers and other ploys to impede and intimidate marginalized voters. So they get a pass.

With the basket thus shrunken at the enemy's offensive end of the court, conservatives wax populist on issues that liberals would rather see closed to the game of electoral politics, most notably abortion and marriage equality.

While the Indiana General Assembly overall seems to be losing its taste for a referendum battle over same-sex unions, Gov. Mike Pence and his fellow "defenders of traditional marriage" insist that the average Hoosier has a right to weigh in on his neighbor's personal life and public protections.

That, say the defenders of the American tradition of change, amounts to the tyranny of the majority, against which the Constitution and courts were erected. African-Americans and women did not gain the ballot via referendum. Gay couples might win one - everyone sees that tide turning, even in Indiana - but the message sent by a free-for-all would violate the principle that rights are not granted; they pre-exist. It would leave a nuclear winter regardless of who prevailed.

On a more - uh - pedestrian note, the legislature did grudgingly approve a referendum by Central Indiana residents on how to tax themselves for mass transit. The reluctance that delayed this breakthrough for several sessions was cast by the leadership as fiscal concern; yet the fiscal risk was and remains with the locals. Urban and suburban, government and business and labor and clergy, support is strong. Pence and Co. felt and still feel some fatherly need to protect these grownups from themselves.

Two issues, two proposed referenda, two sides. Each is asking why the other sought one and fought one. Each has claimed the high ground. Each knows that the real difference came down to who was likely to vote and to benefit. Small-town Indiana and conservative Christians in general would not do to mass transit what they'd do to the cause of gay rights.

At the same time, it would be well for the old guard to be careful what it wishes for - and against. Indianapolis is the perennial bete noire of a rustic-oriented Statehouse, and mass transit would benefit the big bad city's working poor, the voters Democrats cherish. But enhanced regional mobility also figures to boost the economy - and state tax revenues - on the macro scale. And as for a marriage referendum, it's clear that many Republicans fear it not only as a signal of backwardness to the business world but also as a potential wakeup call to young and liberal - i.e., Democratic - voters.

Principle and politics. Just as an activist judge is one who rules against us, a qualified voter is one of ours.

Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, a contributor to Indianapolis Business Journal and the author of "Indiana Out Loud."

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