Thomas Jefferson proposed including a legislative referendum in the 1775 Virginia State Constitution, arguing that "the people are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
In Federalist Paper No. 49, James Madison argued, "[a]s the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived, it seems strictly consonant to the republican theory to recur to the same original authority ... whenever it may be necessary to enlarge, diminish, or new-model the powers of government."
From this basic principle of the people being the "only legitimate fountain of power" in a demo-cracy, citizens of the US, through the initiative process, have the ability in 24 states to adopt laws or to amend the state Constitution. Through the referendum process, citizens of these and other states also have the ability to reject laws or amendments proposed by the state legislature.
Referendums come in two forms. A popular referendum, possible in 24 US states, is where the people have the power to refer, through a petition, specific legislation that was enacted by their legislature for the people to either accept or reject.
In all states, legislative referendums are possible where the state legislatures, elected officials, state-appointed constitutional revision commissions or other government agencies submit propositions to the people for approval or rejection.
Taiwan is seeking to pass a referendum law that legitimizes this right for the citizens of democratic Taiwan. By proposing such a law, legislators are clearly seeking to solidify democracy in the nation as well as break the gridlock that has hamstrung important decision-making over the past several years as a result of the split in the Legislative Yuan between the pan-green and pan-blue factions.
It is interesting to note that, just as Taiwan is proposing a way to strengthen its democratic processes, the Hong Kong government, controlled by Beijing, is pressing into place a new anti-subversion law that is anti-democratic in form and substance.
As The Wall Street Journal noted, "The new anti-subversion law is a good example of how democracy would make a crucial difference in governing Hong Kong. Without the assurance that they can vote out their leaders at the next election, Hong Kong's people are unwilling to trust them with security laws that might be abused for political ends. But with democracy, such laws would be much more palatable."
There can be no argument about how integral the initiative and referendum process is to democracy and why, as a matter of right, Taiwan wishes to proceed with a referendum law.
President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has vowed not to put Tai-wan's independence to a referendum, as long as the China does not use force against Taiwan. Such a compromise seems necessary in the current political climate. However, it should not stymie reasonable democratic progress.
Chen is now proposing a circumscribed referendum law that will cover a number of serious public welfare issues, domestic issues -- like the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant -- and possibly even legislative reform, change of the electoral system or cutting down the number of legislators.
I believe that a referendum on Taiwan's membership in the World Health Organization would be an important step forward. Such a referendum will result in a huge vote of support and there will be no logistical consequences. As a political vote, a WHO referendum would create no practical problems to solve afterwards.