Why Not an Issues Plebiscite on the 2016 Campaign Trail?

The once-and-only – and hugely popular and successful – plebiscite so far in this country’s history has been on the 1982 nuclear-freeze issue. In view of the 99%’s fury over today’s unanswered and crucial domestic issues, the winning presidential candidate might be smart enough to junk expensive polls, focus groups, and “closed” circuit audiences and, instead, resurrect an informal plebiscite on those issues.

No need for an Executive Order to set one up. Or Congressional or local legislation. Or voter-registration officials’ approval. Just get the local campaigners and/or grass-roots groups to run them at state fairs or other major events – but especially at shopping malls the weekend before schools open.

That’s what happened in 1982 when more than a third of Americans voted for that nuclear freeze. Results forced President Ronald Reagan and a hawkish Congress – and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev – to obey that massive outpouring of vox populi views. The overwhelming view opposed nuclear-weapon proliferation. Voters believed war threats could lead to global obliteration.

Today’s plebiscite idea came from a recent article by activist writer Duncan Meisel emphasizing that the 1982 unofficial national result might be just the ticket to test the public’s views on the climate-change issue.

But why limit it to that?

A plebiscite, say, on a half-dozen issues is just the kind of thing Sen. Bernie Sanders might do in the months ahead for his presidential campaign. And don’t think he wouldn’t cite the local plebiscite results in his speech.

Unfortunately, no candidate in American history has yet been brave enough to run a plebiscite because of fear of the results. Especially today when the divide is between the ruling class and the ruled. But so what? It certainly would help counter-balance paid-for polls, threats from corporate billionaires, media myopia, and their party’s control.

A plebiscite is democracy in its purest form, as in ancient Greece and, as such, has always been avoided by an elitist or tyrannical leadership or legislators terrified of the 99%. But that wouldn’t be the case in a responsive democracy.

Such was the power of that 1982 plebiscite that one today may well impact other presidential candidates, Congress, or state and local elections. It would be foolish indeed not to rewrite campaign promises to reflect a plebiscite’s results – and, if elected, even implement them.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has noted that 50% of former voters have given up on elections because their representatives pay more attention to financial supporters than to voters. Indeed, so angry are Oregon voters about the two parties being “bought and sold,” that the Independence party has grown from 475 registered voters eight years ago to nearly 108,811 by May to become a major party. In the same tally, Democrats and Republicans obviously have driven more than a collective 30,000 into the new party just in the last six months – and more than 33,284 out of any party. And what’s happening in Oregon undoubtedly has been happening elsewhere.

By contrast, a plebiscite at least awakens interest in elections. The history of plebiscites around the world has shown that they draw people out of isolation or indifference and mitigate anger at leaders and legislators. It guarantees the votes of millions will be noticed. As Meisel wrote about that nuclear-freeze plebiscite:

Ultimately, the referendum strategy was symbolic….The overwhelming vote for the freeze in 1982 shifted the political ground out from underneath liberal hawks and the president [ and military], allowing more progressive voices to ride the movement’s coattails – to the point where the 1984 Democratic Party platform included a freeze plank. In other words, it turned diffuse public opinion into a concrete count of bodies at the polls.

Add to this the fact that many people love to respond to questionnaires whether on Academy Award nominees or those in Sunday’s Parade Magazine. These never ask for a driver’s license, photo ID, registration card, or comply with any other roadblock to express their views. Moreover, the media will have to take notice of results, a godsend to candidates the media write off as non-presidential timber.

As for organization of this inexpensive, simple tool, some suggestions for campaigners include:

• Set Sunday, August 30th as a plebiscite day. It’s a free day for most and, for malls, the back-to-school shopping expedition ensures hundreds of participants.

• Get permission from library branches and/or mall managers to set up a card table by front doors.

• Ensure at least 2 volunteers can do a noon-5 p.m. shift.

• Stock each table with sufficient ballots and pens.

• To ensure people vote only once, either do a “finger dip” or stamp the back of hands.

• Put a pdf sample ballot (such as the one below) on the Internet or Facebook for volunteers so they can run off a master copy for a copier-shop printing run.

•When prospective voters ask the why or the who’s doing the plebiscite, have volunteers tell them it’s a state-wide bipartisan plebiscite. Results will be sent to all federal, state, and local campaign offices.

Below is that suggested, plain-vanilla, inexpensive, black-and-white ballot. Whatever the issues, they need to be boiled down as are these from Sander’s 12-point platform. A simple ballot is easily made into a pdf that any grassroots organization can download for the corner copier store. This sample black and white ballot is so simple (not even fill-in boxes) that voters certainly will know the Kochs, et alia, and the two major parties had nothing to do with it.

Sample Ballot

Times like these are just as critical as when that 1982 plebiscite forced a drastic about-face from leaders in the life-and-death issue of nuclear-weapon proliferation – and warhawks and weapons vendors eager for war. Today as in 1982, people’s voices have been ignored on vital domestic issues by Washington, judging from the procedural tactics on bills before Congress. And those damaging the domestic front by presidential or Congressional leadership.

A plebiscite did force a hugely important change back in 1982 and can do so again. In this regard, the nuclear-freeze version was started by a key and persistent disarmament researcher (Randall Forsberg) whose efforts were picked up by dozens of major peace and anti-war organizations.

The same kind of public action is possible today. It requires only that grassroots or candidates’ volunteers get busy now, not in late fall or just before the primaries or the 2016 election. The sooner the candidates hear the vox populi, the sooner they can adjust their positions, truly claiming vast public support to those attempting to bully or buy them. As Sanders himself commented in mid-June:

What’s necessary to make change happen is a mobilized grassroots movement. That’s especially true when a few…billionaires and corporations have their sights set on buying our elections. If we’re going to accomplish what we want for this country, it won’t happen by negotiating with [Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell – it will only happen when millions of Americans get out and make their voices heard. We have a chance to do that today.