The Palin Pick, and Alaska’s Direct Democracy

Get ready, America, for a lesson in one of our country’s strangest states. What makes Alaska so different? It’s not just the cold and the empty landscape. Alaska is the only state in the union to have had direct democracy since its founding. The other 23 states with the ballot initiative adopted it long after they became states.

So it’s fair to say that Alaska has been shaped more profoundly by direct democracy than any state in the union. As every bit of Gov. Sarah Palin’s life is scrutinized, you’ll hear lots of odd things for which direct democracy is part of the answer. (Here’s my strongest prediction about this choice: once Americans learn how Alaska works, Leno and Letterman will start making jokes — and it’ll be years before they stop). For example, she’ll have to admit — as she has done in the past — that she smoked marijuna. But she’ll have an explanation that may surprise people. Marijuana was LEGAL in Alaska until 1990, and not just for medicinal purposes. Thank the voters for the right. The voters also took the right away.

You’ll also hear about her love of hunting and fishing, and her husband’s work as a commercial fisherman and in the oil fields. You’ll hear a lot from environmentalists about state management of public land. Alaska law in all these matters has been profoundly shaped by the ballot. And you also should expect to see her attacked by good government types as "not a real reformer" for her decision not to back a ballot initiative establishing public finance in Alaska. The measure was defeated in Tuesday’s primary elections there.

For an overview of Alaska’s initiative and referenda history, check out the state page on ballotpedia.