Despite breadth, Reform Michigan Government Now! ballot proposal isn’t too difficult to comprehend

It would have been a great experiment in direct democracy.

At the turn of the century, there was a politician by the name of William Jennings Bryan. He was called the Great Commoner because he claimed to represent that era’s person on the street –Êor in those days, it was just as likely to be the person on the farm.

He must have been popular, because three times the Democratic Party nominated him for president: in 1896, in 1900 and again in 1908. He was a forerunner of the later Progressive movement and pioneered reforms such as the referendum, recall and initiative.

It is through such devices that people in our form of governance can take matters into their own hands when their elected representatives fail.

Our system is designed as representative democracy, not direct democracy. Yet Bryan’s slogan was "let the people rule," and he believed the public fully capable of making critical decisions.

"To Bryan, truth and virtue were determined by the popular will," wrote Ray Ginger. "He resented the experts in government as much as he resented the plutocrats in business. He insisted that ordinary people are fully competent ‘to sit in judgment on every question which has arisen or which will arise, no matter how long our government will endure.’ And so Bryan advocated all measures that would extend direct democracy in government: the initiative, the referendum, direct primaries."

In barring the reform proposal from the ballot — despite the fact that some 400,000 Michiganians signed petitions to put it there — the three judges of the Michigan Court of Appeals stressed that "we do not act to prevent the citizen from voting on a proposal simply because that proposal is allegedly too complex or confusing. Nor do we seek to substitute our own preferences as to governmental form, structure or functioning for those of the electorate."

But you have to wonder. Among other things, the proposal, billed as an amendment to the state constitution, would have reduced the number of appellate judges and cut the salaries of those who remain –Êamong other things.

Be that as it may, the reason the court gave for striking down the proposal was that judges said it constituted a general revision of the constitution because it dealt with more than one subject. They pointed out that the proposal affected four articles of the constitution, seeking to modify 24 sections and add four others.

But as Andrew Nickelhoff, attorney for Reform Michigan Government Now! pointed out, there is no such specific language in the constitution restricting the amendment process.

Oddly, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, one of the organizations seeking to invalidate reform group’s petitions, itself proposed a ballot plan last year seeking to change multiple sections and articles of the constitution.

"Talk to the person on the street," said the reform group’s spokeswoman, Dianne Byrum. She said they appeared to understand the proposal as they jumped at the chance to sign the petition.

Critics claim that the group’s proposal was a stealth effort to change the way redistricting occurred in Michigan so as to benefit Democrats.

If true, would the people have been smart enough to figure that out?

What do you think? The proposal as it would have appeared is printed alongside today’s column.

Do you understand it? How would you have voted: yes or no?

Let us know — and why.

Glenn Gilbert is executive editor of The Oakland Press. Contact him (248) 745-4587 or