By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
Vox Populi, Vox Dei
“The voice of the people is the voice of God”
This is an old political proverb that tracks all the way back to the days of Charlemagne in the 9th century. In a more modern context, it means that politicians should obey the will of the people as if it was the will of the Almighty.
The voice of the people was heard loud and clear last week as voters roundly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have moved the state’s education governance structure from an elected school board to a commission appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. By a 75-25% margin, voters said “no” to this plan.
There are several reasons for this colossal defeat. The most obvious is that, generally speaking, people don’t like having their ability to vote on things taken away. Another reason is that, given Alabama’s complicated and sometimes frustrating system putting so many measures to a referendum, many people will reflexively vote “no” if they don’t understand the initiative or know why it is needed. I’ll combine those two reasons and take it a step further to say that people will never voluntarily forfeit their right to vote without a compelling reason why. And for many voters, no one ever really told them. Except for a laudable last-minute voter outreach effort by Gov. Kay Ivey, Alabama Farmers’ Federation and a handful of other well-meaning groups, there was no long-term, comprehensive plan to get this ballot initiative over the top. Some thought the amendment was dead on arrival and that discretion was the better part of valor. Others thought, especially early on, that simply not discussing the amendment would be the best course of action so as to not excite the opposition. Better not get the people riled up.
Vox Populi, Vox Dei
The problem with that proverb is that it’s largely rubbish. The people aren’t infallible. In fact, they are often wrong. Here in Alabama, we don’t have the best track record when it comes to electoral decisions. We elected Robert Bentley twice. Republicans, who hold sway in this state, nominated Roy Moore to be a United States Senator just two and a half years ago. And even as Alabama’s education system experienced a major backslide over the last decade or so, not a single elected member of the Alabama Board of Education was defeated when they ran for re-election the last two terms. Some retired or ran for other offices, but there was no groundswell among the people to replace the ones responsible for overseeing our education policy. I’ll just say what nobody really wants to in this debate: the voters have done a poor job at holding state leaders accountable for the lack of education progress, including at the state school board level.
So, where do we go from here? It’s important to remember that switching to an education commission was never going to be a silver bullet. It was supposed to be a starting point for getting beyond the current system’s dysfunction. Difficult and important decisions were always going to be necessary, and they still are. In some ways, we are no worse for wear in that the current board members can feel both empowered by the vote and scrutinized by more attention now being paid to their actions. In any case, the state school board, the Legislature, the Alabama Department of Education and the governor’s office have to find a way to work together. A good first step would be to all commit to properly funding and cultivating the state’s new literacy initiative that is right now in a critical stage of development.
Whatever way forward we take in education, it will inevitably again involve votes of the people, whether that means voting on other ballot initiatives or for political candidates. Responsibility lies with both the voting public and state leaders to better understand each other because, quite frankly, there’s a serious disconnect here. Did you know this education amendment, the one that failed 75-25 at the ballot box, passed with large majorities in the Legislature? The final votes were 78-25 in the House and 30-0 in the Senate.
After last week, the people have reaffirmed their preference to vote on these things, and now it will be their responsibility to use it. State leaders also need to take more responsibility to properly and effectively communicate their visions and goals to constituents. It’s a two-way street.
It can be more than a little frustrating to be governed by a system that so frequently depends on a show of hands. But, that’s the one we have, and until that changes it’s on all of us to make the best of it. The voice of the people may not have the infallibly of God, but when it comes to policy, it has the authority. Next time – and there will be a next time – let’s all do a better job of making that voice an informed and reasonable one.
Todd Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. He previously spent 15 years working in politics and government at the state and federal levels. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.