Press "Enter" to skip to content

The role of a representative

There’s no perfect answer, and there are always situational answers, to the question of whether elected officials should rigorously follow the polls in deciding what to do. Veer too far from what the public wants, or will accept, and you’ll be thrown out of office, and maybe should be. But the questions facing voters are often different from those facing their representatives.

Public attitudes can be hard to gauge, and they aren’t always what you think they are. Have you seen the recent articles about the polling on whether gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military? A CBS poll says that 51% of Americans favor allowing “gay men and lesbians” to so serve – but just 34% of “homosexuals.” Draw what conclusions you will from that.

Ballot issues should in theory be a more solid base for assessing opinion; but the questions they ask typically are narrow. Would you like lower taxes? You probably would. How about this: Would you prefer a tax cut of x amount with a cut in public services at x level, or not? That result might be a little different, especially depending on the variables.

Washington legislators are grappling with this as they deal with cutting ot the most stringent portions of Initiative 960, which said that “for the Washington State Legislature to raise taxes, the legislature would have to approve any tax increases with a two-thirds supermajority vote or submit tax increase proposals to a statewide vote of the electorate.” It passed in 2007 with 51.2% of the vote (a lot less than it would ask of the legislature to transact conventional business).

Initiatives ordinarily are considered close to untouchable – the people have, after all, spoken directly in those cases. But they periodically are adjusted, in many states (Washington has amended them before), and ordinarily there’s less political blowback than you might expect. (A notable case from Idaho in 2002, when voters passed a term limit initiative aimed in part at state legislators themselves. The legislators swiftly and overwhelmingly repealed the voter-passed limits, with votes so strong they overrode a governor’s veto. The whole subject hardly even came up in the next election.)

When Tim Eyman, I-960’s key backer, tells legislators that there’s strong support for keeping a limit on taxes, he’s undoubtledly right. But consider that point in context.

You can consider, for example, the anti-tax rally at Olympia today, which drew 3,000 people – a substantial crowd. But then, there were also the 6,000 people who showed up at the anti-budget cuts rally.

Then there was the Elway Poll (403 Washingtonians, January 29-31, margin of error 5%) for Eldercare Alliance released today, indicating 47% favoring for lawmakers who “voted to raise taxes in order to maintain services for elderly and disabled people;” 24% disapproved and the other 24% said it would make no difference. Complicating the situation: If a legislator voted to increase taxes “to maintain statewide public services,” support drops to 23% and opposition rises to 37%. In other words, there’s empathy and willingness to pay for specific needs, but not for bland, generalized government – although a large chunk of what government does as an ongoing matter is providing those services.

What seems to be at issue, as a matter of politics, is not whether legislators are upholding an initiative; it is a somewhat broader picture of what legislators are doing. What people think of what their legislators are doing seems to depend a great deal on how you paint that picture.

Share on Facebook