California’s initiative process is broken

In 1911, Gov. Hiram Johnson successfully pushed to create California’s ballot initiative process, calling it “the first step in our design to preserve and perpetuate popular government.” He’d be appalled by what his creation has become.

Then, California’s legislature was largely controlled by business interests, particularly Southern Pacific Railroad. Bribery was commonplace. The initiative, referendum (letting voters repeal measures passed by the legislature) and recall (removing officeholders before their terms expire) were supposed to take power away from those interests and return it to the people.

After this year’s campaigns, the idea seems almost quaint. Corporations and other special interests now dominate what was supposed to be a vehicle for “people’s democracy.”

Over $200 million was spent on California ballot measures this year, and hardly any of it came from ordinary citizens. Most came in massive, six- and seven-figure contributions from huge corporations and business groups, including tobacco giant Philip Morris, Mercury Insurance and oil companies like Chevron, Shell and Valero.

Many of the propositions were placed on the ballot by these corporate interests seeking to boost their bottom line by avoiding taxes and fees or protecting themselves from competition.

Happily, many of these corporate initiatives were defeated – but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of hours of effort and millions of dollars raised by community groups. And some of that opposition money inevitably came from other special interests looking to protect their own turf. It’s not a pretty picture.

There’s nothing immoral about company executives trying to boost profits; that’s their job. But whatever this monster called the initiative process has become, it sure isn’t citizen democracy.

And it’s not just corporations buying ballot access. Political factions often place measures on the ballot to stir up their base and bring out voters whom they think will back their party or ideology. Often, these initiatives target a minority group considered controversial or unpopular.

Sadly, California has a long history of ballot initiatives being used to attack the rights of minorities. This dismal tradition goes back at least to 1964, when Californians voted by a two-to-one margin to allow housing discrimination based on race, sex and religion. More recent initiatives have targeted undocumented immigrants, same-sex couples and others.
One reason this has happened is that gathering sufficient signatures to qualify an initiative costs big bucks. A recent tally by found that California signature drives this year cost an average of $1.85 million per initiative.

The huge number of signatures required (based on a percentage of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election) is almost impossible to do with just volunteers, so professional firms get hired to send out armies of paid signature-gatherers. If you field a large enough army, you get enough signatures for nearly anything.

This is not what Hiram Johnson and his fellow reformers envisioned.

So what can be done? A ban on paid signature-gatherers probably wouldn’t pass constitutional muster, but perhaps a way could be found to give more weight to volunteer signatures.
Another option, already used by many states, is to have the legislature consider initiatives before they reach the voters. This doesn’t necessarily keep self-serving measures off the ballot, but it does provide an extra layer of scrutiny, debate and analysis.

Such structural changes would require amending the state constitution – a considerable challenge. But in the meantime, there may be smaller reforms that would improve transparency, help voters understand who is behind the measures they’re voting on, and make impartial, unbiased information more readily accessible.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know that it’s long past time to start asking the questions.

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