Administrative Capacity in Direct Democracy

Quinn Yeargain - Widener University Commonwealth Law School
Vol. 57
December 2023
Page 1347

The relationship between democracy and regulation is contested. At the federal level, in the absence of a national initiative of referendum process, or democratic control over regulators themselves, we find some democratic accountability in other ways — like the indirect election of the President and the direct election of Congress. Whether these proxies provide sufficient democratic input into the regulatory process is the matter of some debate.

Things look different at the state level. Voters in most states elect some form of economic regulator, and in many states, voters simultaneously enjoy powers of direct democracy. As a result, state-level administrative structures have long been dependent on popular input. For much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, voters directly elected many regulators. Far-reaching reforms to state governments during the twentieth century reformed the relationship between the electorate and regulation, and voters agreed to an implicit trade: their power to elect regulators for a new power to propose legislation and constitutional amendments of their own. Through these new powers, voters began to play a significant role in shaping administrative structures — they passed judgment on reorganizations of their states’ executive branches, the creation of new agencies and departments, and the introduction of regulation to new areas of economic activity.

But the role of voters in shaping their states’ administrative structures is under attack. Many state legislatures have attempted to impose new restrictions on the initiative and referendum process — which would visit unique harms on voters’ powers to create and modify structures. At the same time, the strict application of subject-matter restrictions, like single-subject requirements, by state courts disproportionately targets administrative reforms.

The role of voters in setting structure, rather than directly setting policy, has long been ignored. But this rich history adds a great deal of context to debates over the relationship between democracy and regulation. In this Article, I explore the long history of direct voter involvement in creating regulatory structures, beginning with their ability to pick individual regulators in contested elections, and continuing with their power to initiate statutes and constitutional amendments to restructure the administrative states. I argue that the history of voter involvement in modifying state administrative structures is legally significant. In an era in which state-level policymaking is more important than ever, and in which state administrative and constitutional law are increasingly taken seriously, this history matters. It should inform how state constitutions’ initiative and referendum powers should be interpreted, and the context in which statutory restrictions to these powers should be reviewed.

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