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Two words: Referen. Dum.

Your Humble Blogger went to the polls this morning for a budget referendum. Y’all know I hate these, right? What happens is that our duly elected City Council (often around two-thirds of the vote, although it’s a wacky system) and especially our duly elected Board of Education (much the same) get together and come up with a budget, and then a group of anti-tax zealots get 6% of the voting rolls to sign a petition, and we have a referendum. Then we have an election, in which perhaps 20% of the town votes down the budget (with perhaps 15% supporting it) and the whole thing goes back to the Council all over again.

Jon Bernstein writes about Democratic Frustration, which he describes as having two major types (in a very large Madisonian democracy such as ours): frustration over losing, and frustration over winning. Frustration over losing is obvious: people work hard at this democracy thing, and still somehow more people vote for the other guy. It’s crazy. Frustration over winning is less obvious: your Party gets in power, and the policy outcomes are not what you wanted. This is a non-Madisonian feature: winning the election but losing the referendum. Or it’s only sorta Madisonian, Madisonian wannabe. Part of the Madisonian system is a brake on purely majoritarian rule, and the budget referendum is certainly a way for a passionate minority to have influence. On the other hand, the genius of Madisonian politics is to make the politicians themselves responsible to their constituents, or out they go on their proverbials on the next Election Day.

This system doesn’t do that at all—neither Council nor Board members have faced any sort of electoral retribution for occasioning constant referenda with their budgets, because a very large majority of the town’s voters support their priorities. The cynical incentive is for those elected officials to produce a phony budget, a fat budget that (presumably through deceptive tricks if not outright dishonesty) makes them look good, without suffering the consequences of having to enact it. The blame for the cuts goes to the Taxxcrazy Association, and then the second budget is the one with some responsibility and seriousness. In fact, I have been impressed by our local officials not doing that—they put together a serious and responsible budget, a bit skimpy to my taste, that pays for itself with a small tax increase and keeps the schools running with at least a few tasty treats now and then. This year, both Parties agreed on the budget—and we’re having a referendum anyway, and I suspect the outcome will be the same as the previous years.

Of course, what makes this a Madisonian feature is that it is a stumbling block put in place through a democratic procedure, a way for the individuals who made up the government to advance themselves through guaranteeing the citizens the right to be thwarted in their policy preferences. And do you know who is at fault? You haven’t been paying attention, have you. It’s the fault of the teacher’s unions, of course. Everything is the fault of the teacher’s unions. If there’s one thing we know about the Founding Fathers, it’s that they would have hated teacher’s unions. Or something.

Well, there it is. Despite everything, I still enjoyed voting this morning. The whole family, getting on the vote boat, and even if I can’t justify calling it the powerfullest scene and show of the Western World, O Best Beloved, it is still moving, in it’s way.

And while I’m on Mr. Whitman, look what NPR personality and Hartford Courant columnist Colin McEnroe posted last night: Choosing Day. You don’t think Mr. McEnroe is a Gentle Reader of this Tohu Bohu, do you?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I should update: while my estimate of 15% support for the budget was spot on, only 10% showed up to vote no, so we have a budget! Hurrah!


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