On November 2, Americans vote - and vote - and vote

The U.S. presidential election has become so obscure we may not know who's going to win for weeks afterwards. Its dynamics are unbelievably murky: John Kerry looks weak in some states (Michigan and Hawaii) that should portend a Republican landslide, yet is doing well in others (Ohio and Pennsylvania) that should have Mr. Bush packing for the ranch. For what it is worth, I still predict a fairly solid Bush victory, based on the children's and Halloween mask polls among other things. But it's not the only election on Nov. 2, and may not be the most interesting one.

Americans are also voting for one-third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives, as they do every two years. Odds are long that the Republicans will regain control of both Houses of Congress, in which case a President Kerry would be unable to implement most of whatever his agenda is meant to be. The president proposes, but Congress disposes (and the nation dozes, as the old saying goes). So George Bush couldn't bring back the draft even if he wanted to, as the U.S. Constitution vests such legislative matters in, of all things, the legislature.

President, Congress ... and that's not the half of it. In various states voters will decide on marijuana and doughnuts (no, they're two separate issues) and nearly 200 other ballot initiatives, including 57 that resulted from citizen petitions. In 11 states, they will vote on gay marriage, including in the key swing state of Ohio where, if voters say yea, a ban on it will go straight into the state constitution without requiring legislative action. Such measures have been described as cynical ploys to boost voter turnout for the presidential contest, but even when they are, they are far more as well.

In some cases, voter turnout is stronger for such referendums than for the White House. And in Maine this year, voters will pass judgment on whether hunters shall be allowed to bait bears with pizza and doughnuts. Which, to cast my two Canadian cents into the discussion, sounds pretty darn mean.

Whatever devious plans the operatives may have, voters cast votes on an often bewildering list of such initiatives primarily because they believe, with reason, that these local initiatives will have more influence on how they are governed than the votes they cast for representative, senator or even president. For one thing, it's a lot clearer what you're going to get. Who knows what John Kerry's Iraq plan might be? But in Maine, say yes and it's no more inviting bruin to a party then plugging him. Period.

For years, I struggled to persuade the deep thinkers of our own Reform party that ballot initiatives and referendums were not compatible with the underlying structure of parliamentary self-government. But they make sense in a system where the people, through a written constitution they can amend, are sovereign. And they offer an important lesson even in a system where Parliament is, or was, sovereign. It is that in the end the people should decide the rules under which they must live.

In Canada, there are two major forces at work in the opposite direction. One is judicial activism, on which I have nothing new to say at the moment except once again to cite Ted Morton's chapter in the new book Divorcing Marriage, where he says "The most fundamental question is: Why is government based on the consent of the governed no longer good enough?" Indeed.

The other pernicious force loose in our politics is more subtle: the increasingly frank wish of politicians to remove contentious issues from their hands into those of impartial commissions of experts who they appoint based on ideological sympathy, but for whom they then disclaim any responsibility. Most recently, federal Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh told Western Standard magazine: "What we are trying to do is take politics out of health care so that experts make decisions as to whether the Canada Health Act is being complied with." Why? Why not the people we elect? What are we, chopped liver?

The U.S. system, rowdy and fractious as it often is, continues to embody the other idea. It not only lets citizens vote out a president they don't like while denying his marginally less unappealing opponent a compliant legislature, it also permits them to vote directly on what anyone they send to Washington can make them do or stop doing.

It's an inspiring spectacle. Especially if the folks in Maine stop that rotten pizza trick with the bears.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson