As we prepare for another election, the third major one this year, we find ourselves made thoughtful by what has become a de facto trend in these affairs. Although there were numerous choices to be made between candidates in the August 7th county general election-cum-state/federal primary, one of the more noteworthy sections of that ballot asked us not to choose between individuals and their platforms but merely to signify "Yes" or "No" under the names of several state appellate judges, including — most conspicuously — three state Supreme Court justices.
It was a version of the thumbs up/thumbs down tradition of the old Roman Coliseum, and there was even some semblance of the howling mob that used to demand this or that verdict from the rest of the crowd in those days. Veritable fortunes were spent on both sides of the Yes/No chasm, in which most of the legal community sided with the beleagured jurists, while powerful figures in the state Republican establishment, foremost among them Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, did what they could to turn those thumbs down.
In the end, Tennessee voters proved more merciful (or perhaps more understanding) than the Roman throngs that made life-or-death decisions about spent gladiators. And one thing has to be said for the nature of the judicial choice presented to us. It was simple, maybe deceptively so, in that most of us had very little information to go on. The canons of judicial ethics forbade any active campaigning on the part of the appellate judges under scrutiny; so more often than not the choice of what to do in the polling booth was a case of eenie-meenie-miney-mo, with most decisions not going very far beyond eenie.
Now here it is, just days before the November 4th election, and the Yes/No choice is hard upon us again, this time in the form of proposed constitutional amendments that we instinctively know can be very, very transformative. Abortion, taxes, gaming, alcohol, and, once again, a matter involving judges: These are big-time subjects.
But even now, as bona fide passion rages in the camps of the true believers, many Tennesseans find themselves unsure about what to do.
Will Amendment 1 really limit women's reproductive rights, as one side says, or will it merely restore the state's "neutrality" on abortion, as the other side maintains? (On this one, we're solidly in the "Vote no on Amendment 1" camp.)
Will Amendment 2 ensure judicial independence or make judges subservient to a legislature with veto power on appellate apointments? A solid bipartisan coalition is urging a "yes" vote. But granting un-named governors in the future the right to appoint all appellate judges troubles many.
There's not much doubt about Amendment 3; you're either for a state income tax, or you're against it. But if it passes, will the measure inevitably result in increased sales taxes? Something to consider.
As for Amendment 4, granting veterans' groups the right to limited gaming in the form of charity raffles, opposition is minimal, and probably should be.
By comparison with the amendments, the various referenda on allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores are self-evident. Vote your conscience.
But, in sum, the ultimate effect of all these Yes/No choices is to make us lonesome for the personality factor of actual human candidacies. Whatever the reality, we think we can judge charisma, and we fancy that we can smell a rascal out. Issues seem simpler. You just say yes or no.