Two of the most perilous ballot initiatives in yesterday’s elections didn’t survive the night. In Boulder, Colorado, ballot issues #300 and #301—measures that would have given neighborhoods control over zoning and stifled new development—each failed to reach 40 percent of the vote. These ultra-NIMBY ordinances were amendments to the city’s charter. Had Boulder decided to move in this direction, it would have been difficult to change course in the future.
In San Francisco, Propositions F and I—initiatives that would have imposed severe restrictions on short-term housing rentals (namely Airbnb) and issued a moratorium on new development in the Mission—also failed to gain majorities. Similar to Boulder, had these measures passed in San Francisco, it would have taken still more ballot initiatives to revoke these ordinances in the future.
And in Houston, voters rejected Proposition 1, a measure that would have affirmed and extended the equal-rights status of residents based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, however, were able to frame the measure as “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.” Without segregating bathrooms legally by biological sex, opponents argued, men in Houston would pretend to be women in order to fake their way into ladies’ restrooms and sexually assault women.
Policy referenda are sometimes hailed as the true voice of the people. “Ballot initiatives are sometimes called the ‘safety valve’ of democracy,” wrote Corey D. Cook, a professor of political science at the University of San Francisco, back in 2014 after a different round of ballot measures. “They offer a release for the pent-up pressures in the electorate.”
Politics as usual, right? Except that ballot measures turn planning decisions into election campaigns. Instead of expertise and data, narrative and emotional appeals (and money!) are brought to bear on complex decisions about technical issues like land-use policies and zoning. These are issues that most voters have little familiarity with. And it’s not their fault. In a representative democracy, voters select leaders whose job it is to familiarize themselves with zoning rules, planning priorities, and other issues and make decisions about them. The system works, when it works.
“But freedom!” some critics might object. Government is slow, whereas direct democracy is speedy and access to information is getting better. Still, the public already has a say in planning decisions: first through the vote, and then through the public-feedback mechanisms that almost always accompany zoning changes. People with strong and considered opinions on policies manage to find ways to influence political outcomes without necessarily reverting to irrevocable ballot-measure decision-making.