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Smart Bombs: Voting on rights is wrong

Activists from Envision Spokane and Spokane Moves to Amend the Constitution successfully urged the City Council to put two initiatives on the ballot. Even Tim Eyman, the initiatives entrepreneur, showed up to make pro-democracy-sounding arguments on behalf of measures he would vote against if he lived here.

Let the people decide! What could be more principled than that? It’s one thing if the issues are, say, red-light cameras and light rail. It’s quite another if the goal is to shrink the basic rights of others. Let’s turn to the history books to see why.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine enabling school segregation in cities like Topeka, Kan. At the time of Brown v. Board of Education, 17 states had systems in which it was mandatory for white and black children to attend different schools. In other states, including Kansas, segregation was an option. Three years after states were ordered to integrate their schools with “deliberate speed,” Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to block black children from entering “white” schools in Little Rock. A year later, Faubus was named one of the 10 most admired Americans in a Gallup Poll.

If put to a vote, segregation would’ve won in many states.

In another Gallup Poll, from 1958, only 4 percent of Americans said they approved of mixed-race marriages – the kind that would one day produce the 44th president. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law that prohibited interracial marriages, but it wasn’t until 1997, according to Gallup, that a majority of Americans would approve of such unions.

If put to a vote, that right would’ve been withheld in many jurisdictions for several more decades.

So the question becomes, should we be voting on other people’s rights? The existence of the Bill of Rights, which protects basic liberties from majority sentiment, answers the question. Yet, we did that last year with gay marriage in this state, and we congratulated ourselves for making the right choice. But what if the vote had gone the other way? Our representatives passed a gay marriage bill, and the governor signed it into law. That’s where the issue should’ve been decided. But soon signatures were gathered for a referendum to repeal this law. I don’t imagine many of the progressive-minded folks from Envision Spokane and SMAC signed those petitions to let voters decide other people’s rights.

And yet, they’re touting an initiative that would limit the free speech and due process rights of citizens who work for corporations because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which strengthened corporate influence over elections. I’m no fan of that ruling, but the solution isn’t to put it to a vote.

Eyman makes the seductive argument that people should be able to vote on measures such as this, and if they’re nullified later for being unconstitutional, well, there is value in that, too. Politicians have been notified. Wishes have been expressed. But the only politicians who can do anything about these matters are on the federal level. Take a poll if you’re curious about local opinions.

If the citizens of Little Rock or cities in Virginia had put their local governments on notice, what actions would they have expected? The continuation of segregation and the prohibition of mixed marriages in defiance of the Supreme Court. What happens next in such scenarios is where it really gets twisted. Local governments may be compelled to defend the indefensible when such initiatives pass.

Eyman gazes upon that landscape and says, “Look at all that democracy.” I see a casual disregard for fundamental rights. Voters don’t decide what the Constitution says. They certainly can’t customize it for their particular cities.

This election won’t give the community a bill of rights. It will mock the very idea.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.