Make the Presidential Primary a Real Referendum on the War

We can only guess now how the confrontation between Congress and the President over a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq will ultimately play out. But given that the Senate legislation sets March 2008 as a target, and the House legislation sets September 2008 as a binding final deadline, and the President has yet to agree to any timetable at all, we should be dismayed, but not terribly surprised, to find that when 2008 opens we still have U.S. combat forces in Iraq and we are still arguing about getting them out.

So when voters go to the polls early next year to select their choice for their party’s presidential nomination, one of the key questions on their minds will be and should be, who is going to get us out of Iraq?

In this sense, the presidential primaries will be a referendum on the war. And – unfortunately – it may well be that in early 2008, tensions between the U.S. and Iran will be as high or higher than they are today, even if – one hopes – the Bush Administration has not yet attacked Iran. In which case, a related question on voters’ minds may well be, "who is going to keep us out of war with Iran?"

The more that the questions of war and peace are issues confronted and addressed by the candidates, the better for the future of our country. However, we don’t need to let this be entirely determined by the vagaries of campaigns and media coverage. For many of us, at least, depending in part on where we live, we have a ready tool at our disposal to help shape the agenda in this election – the referendum.

Every state allows the legislature to place a referendum on the ballot. But in addition, twenty-four states allow citizens to put referenda directly on the ballot. The Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California publishes a map and list. The Institute also gives some of the interesting history of battles for the right of referendum in each state, some of them dating to the Populist and Progressive Eras.

In some cases the procedures for directly placing an item on the statewide ballot are onerous. There may also be early deadlines for doing so, another reason why it makes sense to consider this well in advance. But if one can’t surmount the barriers to create a statewide referendum, one can still do local referenda.

A survey by the International City/County Management Association suggests that nearly 90% of American cities have some form of referendum procedure.

Illinois is a particularly interesting case. State law mandates that once a year there shall be a township meeting, where local residents can essentially function as the legislature of their township. In particular, they can place up to three advisory referenda on the ballot in the township in the next statewide election. In many cases, township boundaries are coterminous to cities. So, following this procedure, one does not need to get a city council to agree, or to pass any petitions, to get a referendum in your city. One simply needs to show up at the annual township meeting, which this year is on April 10. You can find more information about this process in Illinois here.

A great thing about doing this locally is that you and your friends, or you and your friendly local council members, get to decide what the referendum questions will be.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Prevent War with Iran
Shall the voters call upon their elected representatives in Congress to pursue all available means to prevent war with Iran, including passing legislation that would explicitly prohibit the President from attacking Iran without Congressional authorization?

[State] Legislature Should Oppose the War in Iraq
Shall the voters call upon their elected representatives in the [State] Legislature to pass a resolution in opposition to the war in Iraq and in favor of a rapid and orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq?

Cut Funding for War and Occupation of Iraq
Shall the voters call upon their elected representatives in Congress to pursue all available means to limit military funding in Iraq to only what is required to bring all U.S. troops home safely?

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