California’s ballot initiative: A sharp tool cutting both ways

California’s ballot-initiative system is as daring and flawed as the person who created it – a fierce, abrasive, reform-driven man of startling intelligence and physical courage who also was a racist, isolationist and advocate of anti-immigration laws.

Hiram Johnson, then a deputy San Francisco prosecutor, came to statewide attention in 1908 after his boss was gunned down in court during the trial of crime czar Abe Reuf.

Johnson took over the prosecution and won a conviction.

Ruef got a 14-year sentence.

The acerbic, combative Johnson got the governor’s office.

He won the 1910 election for governor in part because of an initiative reform movement already aflame in Los Angeles, and he won because reformers flocked to his campaign. Early reform had been throttled in L.A., but backers wanted to carry it statewide.  

In Johnson’s 1911 reform special-election package, he’s most remembered for the ballot initiative, which gives the public a chance to write laws through voter approval at the ballot box, thus avoiding the Legislature. This is the crux of Johnson’s legacy, far more than his vice-presidential nomination and his five terms in the U.S. Senate.  

“The way they’ve (initiatives) evolved, they’ve probably created as many problems as they’ve solved,” said Joe Caves, a veteran strategist and specialist in environmental initiatives. “But without the initiative, you don’t have that safety valve.”

But Johnson also sought – and the public approved – popular elections of U.S. senators instead of appointees of the Legislature, recall elections, referendum elections in which the public can throw out existing laws, and the right of women to vote. The latter was approved in California nine years before federal approval.

“I do not by any means believe the initiative, the referendum and the recall are the panacea for all our political ills, yet they do give to the electorate the power of action when desired, and they do place in the hands of the people the means by which they can protect themselves,” he once said.

Just which people were getting protected was arguable, however.

After the ballot reforms were approved, Johnson also backed the California Alien Land Act, which barred noncitizens from owning property and was aimed principally at Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants, as well as other immigrants. One of the drafters of the law, later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, was attorney Francis Heney, Johnson’s old boss who had been shot in the head in court but managed to survive. Johnson specifically sought bars on Japanese immigration, which virtually was halted from 1924 until after World War II.

After a century of ballot initiatives, the basic question is whether Johnson’s vision has helped or hurt California. Like Johnson himself, the initiatives have created profound differences in California life and governance.

During the past 100 years, of the 348 initiatives that qualified for the ballot through the signatures of voters, Californians approved about 116 of them – a 33 percent approval rate. Of the 47 referenda that qualified for the ballot, 19 were successful, notes the secretary of state’s office.

A referendum, in which an existing law can be thrown out, is a far rarer device than an initiative – about nine times as many initiatives have qualified for the California ballot than have referenda.

But referenda have marked major shifts in public policy, such as the 1982 referendum that blocked the Peripheral Canal or the 2004 referendum that tossed out the law requiring employers to provide health insurance for their workers.

Initiatives have had even more impact. The 1978 property tax-cutting Proposition 13 eviscerated local and state finances, rolled back levies to their 1975 levels and limited new increases year-by-year. Billed as a way of easing the burden on the homeowner, Proposition 13 in fact also cut taxes on business property – a provision that remains deeply divisive to this day. As an unintended consequence, it centralized power in Sacramento as locals asked – and got – bailouts to cover the losses.    

Alcohol consumption, a full-time Legislature, limiting lawmakers’ terms and pensions, cutting taxes, guaranteeing money for schools, fighting cancer, overhauling the insurance system, allowing gambling – all were initiatives that were approved over the years.

And all involved money spent by campaign rivals.

“Voters are beginning to develop concerns about the initiative process, primarily the role of special interests. But until people start thinking more highly of the Legislature, ballot initiatives aren’t going anywhere,” said Dan Schnur, a former chair of the state Fair Political Practices Commission and currently the director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

The approval rating of the Legislature is about 14 percent, according to surveys.

People may not like initiatives, for whatever reason, but believe “we are a lot happier with initiatives than we are with legislators,” he added.

A problem in initiatives – in fact, any campaign – is that the electorate’s perception of the measure may have little connection to the reality of the measure and more to do with campaign advertising and communications spin.

But advertising, especially TV advertising, costs money. And that means the interest with the deepest pockets stands to win in initiative fights, although there have been glaring exceptions, such as Proposition 16 of 2010.

“I think there has been a lot of concern about the issue of money involved in the initiative process,” said Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, chair of the Senate Elections Committee, “yet I think we cannot overlook the fact that the initiative is the direct voice of the people. As we look toward reform, we have to make sure we don’t make it more challenging for people to speak their direct voice in the legislative process.”

Improving the initiative process is important, he added, but you want to make sure you are not creating any impediments or any obstacles to the direct initiative process. That’s a very fine balance that we have to work toward.”

But changing the way initiatives are voted upon raises huge obstacles. For one, the very moneyed interests who want the system to stay the way it is would spend vast amounts to block any changes – which would require voter approval. The Catch-22 is that those who want the change the most have less money than those who oppose change.

Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t made it any easier to reform California’s initiative process. That decision allowed unlimited spending by corporations and unions.

“I think it’s an important piece of our governance here in California,” said Derek Cressman of California Common Cause. “But there are some things we need to change about it. In particular I’m concerned about all the corporate treasury funds in ballot campaigns.”

To change that, he added, would require overturning “the ruling that corporations have the same constitutional rights that citizens do.”

Johnson himself seems to have had a premonition over the fierce political wars that would erupt over the initiatives he fathered, the low blows and blatant spin that would accompany the propositions.

“The first casualty when war comes is truth,” he once said.

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