Last year in Maryland, petition drives succeeded in putting on the ballot proposals to repeal laws passed by the General Assembly, including legalization of same-sex marriage. The repeal efforts failed. This year, efforts to reverse the abolition of the death penalty and restrictions on firearms failed to garner enough signatures to get repeals on the ballot. The editorial board of The Baltimore Sun opines today that fears among the state's Democratic establishment that referendum petitions would send us down the road to government by plebiscite were therefore unfounded.
A plebiscite (pronounced PLEB-uh-site) is a vote in which the entire electorate is invited to accept or reject a proposal. The Latin original of the word, plebiscitum, was a law enacted by the plebeians' assembly, the plebeians being the common citizens, distinguished from the aristocratic class, the patricians. The Latin word combines pleb, "the common people" and scitum, "decree," from sciscere, "to vote for."
Example: In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce offers a characteristically cynical definition: "Plebiscite, n. A popular vote to ascertain the will of the sovereign."
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John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers' work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun's night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at email@example.com.