Why are we voting to give away our voting rights?

Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2000

Of all the issues we will confront on Election Day, the most confusing is Proposition 1. This is a proposed constitutional amendment that will take away from the residents of Alaska their right to vote on fish and game matters the right to adopt fish and game legislation directly by initiative.

When I first heard of this proposal, I did not take it seriously. After all, why would people vote to give away their power to vote? Why would people, who traditionally distrust politicians, give up their power in areas of fish and game policy to those same politicians? Fish and game matters probably affect more people here than in any other state. I couldn't imagine that a measure to remove voters' rights to express themselves on these issues would even get on the ballot, much less have a serious chance of passing.

So much for my powers of prediction. It is on the ballot and it is being taken very seriously, but I still don't understand why. As best I can determine, the people who think this is a good idea rely on two arguments. The first is that fish and game decisions are just too complicated for us average citizens and, as a result, we should leave those decisions to the "experts." A few years ago we had an initiative proposal that sought to allocate the allowable catch, as first determined by biologists, among various user groups sport fishermen, commercial fishermen and the like. Why is a biologist any better suited to make those decisions that anyone else? This year we are again voting on a wolf initiative. Anyone who thinks that this is simply a predator control issue hasn't lived through the tremendous national impact caused by past state efforts at wolf control impacts on tourism and impacts on federal legislation to name just two. Regardless of how you personally feel about wolf control, it is impossible to characterize this as "simply science." Even if you believe wolf control is needed (and not everyone does), it is a political decision as to whether you believe that a temporary increase in the moose population and a corresponding temporary decrease in the wolf population is worth the price we will pay for that action and people should have the same right to express themselves on this issue as on any other.

The other group of "experts" to whom the people will cede their power if Proposition 1 passes is the Legislature, for if the people lose their right to decide on fish and game matters, as they will with the passage of this amendment, the Legislature will be the exclusive source of fish and game laws. I will skip the obvious comments about the "expertise" of recent legislatures and just ask the most basic question: In limited instances where the Legislature fails to act or acts unwisely, what is wrong with the people expressing themselves directly? It takes enormous time and effort to put an initiative on the ballot, but once it is on, there is no reason that the voters of this state, furnished with the facts, in a straightforward campaign, cannot be just as capable of making intelligent decisions as legislators who receive the same facts in a committee.

It is the nature of these statewide campaigns that seems to worry the supporters of this amendment. I've heard a lot about outside groups and outside money influencing Alaskans on fish and game issues. Apparently, the theory is that we Alaskans are all basically country bumpkins and those smart slickers from outside will just bamboozle us unless we fix them real good by denying ourselves the right to vote on things that matter to us. There is hardly a campaign in Alaska above school board that doesn't have outside money in it. Oil companies give a fortune to elect candidates and affect ballot issues. Where do people think they come from Petersburg? Some cruise lines are based in foreign countries and nobody seems to care if Liberian corporations want to contribute money to affect local and statewide issues. Up until now, at least, we have trusted Alaskans to analyze the substance of issues and as part of that analysis, to judge whether the source of funds supporting an issue or a candidate should be relevant. If you don't think this works, try to remember back to John Lindauer. It makes no sense to accept outside money as a part of the initiative process for every issue except those involving fish and game.

People should be able to express themselves directly on fish and game issues that affect them when the Legislature fails to listen to the popular will. Proposition 1 would take this power from the people. It is a bad idea.

Avrum M. Gross lives in Juneau.

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