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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Barabak: Lawmakers handcuff voters

By Mark Z. Barabak
Published: May 30, 2023, 6:03am

Last month, a group of Oregon lawmakers walked off the job, bringing the state Senate to a halt. The move came after Democrats in the House passed bills on abortion, gun safety and medical care for transgender people that Republicans, a minority in Oregon’s Legislature, strongly opposed.

There is ample room for discussion on each of these issues. In fact, that’s the job of those elected to represent us: draft legislation, debate its merits and make changes where necessary to win the support of a majority of lawmakers.

The process is not always pretty. (Insert famous line here comparing legislating to sausage-making.) Compromise is often frustrating, leaving no one fully satisfied; it can be particularly tough when your party is in the minority and you’re routinely outvoted.

But that’s how our system works. Or, at least, how it’s supposed to. Elections, as they say, have consequences, along with winners and losers.

Increasingly, however, state lawmakers are ignoring election returns and looking to override popular sentiment to impose their own will instead. It’s a frightening move and a further blow to our already tottering system of democracy.

In Oregon, you have 12 Republican senators and an independent acting like sore losers, or rather children who have taken their ball and gone home, stalling action on hundreds of bills and passage of the state’s budget.

Elsewhere, and more insidious, are efforts to blunt one of the most effective tools of direct democracy — the citizen-approved initiative — by making it harder for voters to bypass lawmakers and enact measures at the ballot box.

Putting up barriers to voting is bad enough, suggested Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, a progressive group. “Now it’s, ‘How can we restrict the power of those … who actually do make it to the voting booth? ‘”

Much of the anti-democratic impulse is being driven by the abortion issue, which has been at the center of politics since Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court last summer. Voters quickly took matters into their own hands, approving ballot measures to ensure abortion remains safe and legal in a half-dozen states, including such conservative strongholds as Kansas, Kentucky and Montana.

GOP lawmakers responded by reaching for handcuffs. In Ohio, the Legislature is fighting efforts to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution by trying to make it harder to pass an initiative aimed at the November ballot. Elsewhere, lawmakers aren’t even bothering to seek voter input.

Similar efforts to undermine citizen democracy are under consideration in Idaho, North Dakota and Wisconsin — all states where Republicans control the legislature. If you think the country’s political polarization and bone-deep partisanship are bad now, just wait.

In Oregon — where GOP lawmakers walked off the job in 2019, 2020 and 2021 — fed-up voters approved a ballot initiative in November to stop the kind of political petulance now on display. (Two-thirds of the Senate’s 30 members must be present to pass legislation.)

Pushed by the political left, Measure 113 amended Oregon’s constitution to say that any lawmaker missing 10 or more floor sessions would be disqualified from holding office as a senator or representative for the term following their current time in office.

“It passed in Republican districts. It passed in Democratic districts. It passed across the board,” said Jim Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University. “People want their legislators to turn up to work regardless of party.”

Last week, Senate Republicans signaled they would stay out until June 25, the last day of the legislative session. Meantime, they have launched a political action committee to raise funds and challenge Measure 113 in court.

When it came to elections, it used to be said the people had spoken and that was the final word. But now, ominously, a growing number of lawmakers refuse to pay attention.

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Maybe if they’re voted out of office, others will do a better job listening.

Mark Z. Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, focusing on politics in California and the West.