It may seem counterintuitive, but in a democracy, an idea simply being popular often isn’t enough to get it passed. That’s especially true in a representative constitutional republic like the United States — policies need to not only be popular, but also fit within our constitutional framework and find broad support in government.

At both the state and federal levels, our legislative branch acts to temper the passion of the electorate, to ensure that all viewpoints are considered, and that proposals are constitutional and just — or at least they ought to.

It also matters not only which opinion has more supporters, but also which side is more engaged. It’s not enough for an idea to be popular; its supporters and proponents must be passionate. Oftentimes, a seemingly popular policy nevertheless fails to to gain enough traction to pass, or doesn’t help its proponents win elections at all.

Partially, this can be chalked up to vague polling — it’s easy enough to be in favor of a concept like “reduce greenhouse gas emissions” or “implement common-sense gun control,” but then find objections when those talking points get turned into legislation.

However, that’s not the only explanation. Even when specific policies are broadly popular, sometimes the opponents are vastly more engaged in the issue than the proponents, leading to total inaction. This is most noticeable at the federal level, where activists don’t have the option of referendums to avoid going to battle with entrenched special interests. But it’s unavoidable at the state level as well.

It’s been especially obvious with particular issues that have failed at the ballot box, like expanding background checks on firearms, despite initial polls that showed them faring rather well. It’s also been an issue with referendums that have passed, but with relatively narrow margins, like ranked-choice voting, raising taxes to increase education funding and marijuana legalization.


After those referendums were passed, legislators in Augusta felt free to work around them because they faced little political pressure to implement them properly. This wasn’t entirely a partisan battle, either — members of both parties worked together to undermine these initiatives after they narrowly passed at the polls.

Democrats were willing to go along with Republicans to challenge ranked-choice voting and to toss parts of the education funding increase completely out the window. That makes perfect sense, since these were positions that were essentially forced on them by outside interest groups. The willingness of Democrats to abandon part, or all, of these initiatives shows why they couldn’t get passed in the first place; they had little support in either party, let alone bipartisan support.

Proponents of future referendums would be wise to avoid that pitfall by spending the time to build broad support within at least one of the two major political parties before launching their campaign. That way, even if their proposal passes only narrowly at the polls, they can count on one party to stand up and fight for their cause in Augusta, rather than being abandoned by both sides. They’ll have to do lobbying to get legislators on board and convince leadership that their ideas have merit and are popular; simply raising gobs of money and getting newspaper endorsements isn’t enough. If that sounds like a lot of work, it is. That’s why the vast majority of referendums these days are backed by professional political groups, rather than simply being grass-roots efforts.

The ideal position for any citizen initiative is to not only have broad support amongst the electorate, but also to have almost unified buy-in from one political party and at least some support from the other.

That’s the position that the Maine Clean Elections program has found itself in over the years, and it’s why conservatives haven’t been able to completely eliminate it — though they’ve certainly modified it and curtailed it more than once. Its proponents have remained involved in the legislative process, establishing a professional lobbying group to defend the program, while its opponents haven’t been able to get a measure to limit it onto the ballot at all.

All of this isn’t a bug of our democracy. It’s a feature, one intended to ensure that passing fancies that fly in the face of common sense don’t get turned into laws. It’s something we all ought to be thankful for, rather than bemoan, as it forces the majority to consider the views of the minority throughout the process. Indeed, it’s a big part of why our constitutional republic has endured for over two centuries – and hopefully will for many more to come.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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