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Opinion: The plebiscite in California: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The “Founding Fathers” of America had little belief in the decision-making of people — they created the Electoral College so “the insiders” in state legislatures could checkmate the electorate.

In the 1800s, Switzerland put into their Constitution the right of initiatives.

A progressive Republican, Hiram Johnson, won the California governor’s election in 1910, running on an anti-Southern Pacific Railroad Company platform – the railroad had too much political and economic power – sort of like the “Occupy Wall Street” movement of today.

In a special election (1911), called by Gov. Johnson, the voters passed (76 percent approval) a Constitutional Amendment creating the initiative process, the referendum and the recall.

California was the 10th state to allow the initiative process.

Half the states and the nation still have no interest in creating such a system. After all, while the Earl Warren court ruled 9-0 (1954) that segregated schools were unconstitutional, as Little Rock High School was being “integrated” with nine African-American kids (1957), a poll in Arkansas showed 85% supporting segregation. This was a time when “indirect” democracy (i.e. unelected federal judges) was more suited.

In 1920, an initiative, the Alien Land Law (Prop 1) which went after Asian Americans, especially those of Japanese descent, by reducing their rights to own land (mostly farm land) passed by 75 percent. “Progressive” and then- U.S. Sen. Hiram Johnson and the California Grange supported the initiative. It was not completely overturned by the California Supreme Court until 1952.

In 1963, Gov. Pat Brown signed the Rumford Fair Housing Act, prohibiting discrimination in the renting and selling of property. Opponents qualified a referendum (Prop 14) for the 1964 ballot and by 65 percent the voters threw the law out, opting to continue discrimination. Two years later, the State Supreme Court ruled Prop. 14 was unconstitutional and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

There are many cases where institutions failed to deal with real problems that were ultimately acted on through the initiative process: high property taxes (Prop 13, June 1978); Prop. 65 passed in November 1986 to remove toxins from daily products (one candy item was immediately taken off shelves in stores); and in November 1988, Prop. 103 was passed to put some controls on auto insurance, and Prop. 99 created a first-in-the-nation tax on cigarettes. Today, California has the nation’s second lowest smoking rate (13 percent), behind Utah. Many other consumer protections, that would never have passed the state Legislature, have been put in place through initiatives.

Gov. Jerry Brown just signed legislation moving initiatives to general elections, however the Legislature can still place constitutional measures on the primary. Some Republicans have complained, stating that it was then- Secretary of State Jerry Brown (1971-75) who had first ruled initiatives could be on the primary ballots. A little history here — in the 1950s and 60s, the primary voter turnout ranged from 56 to 72 percent. However, in the last decade, primary turnouts have lowered to 28 to 58 percent, thus, moving the people’s initiatives to the general election, where the voter turnout has averaged 51 to 79 percent, makes total sense.

Californians have passed billions of dollars in bonds, as well as formulas to lock in the state budget, causing some to complain that there is no way to “fix” the budget, while others praise the voters for passing such measures.

In the 20th century, 272 initiatives qualified for the ballot in California. Two thirds were defeated, while 91 passed, showing that the tendency of voters is to vote “No.” A certain percentage of Californians vote No on all propositions, perhaps indicating they don’t believe in direct democracy or never find the time to read anything about them.

Long before the social media-driven “flash mobs,” Californians had their own form of “flash mobs” – at the ballot box. From Prop. 13, Prop. 187 to the recall of Gov. Davis (although many Republicans have expressed regrets on that particular “mob” action), we have the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the people’s decision, made 100 years ago, to create Direct Democracy.

However, in a recent Field Poll (Oct. 13, 2011) on the question of, “are Propositions a good thing or a bad thing,” just 53 percent  chose “good” while 13 percent said “not good.” In 1978 it was 83 percent good vs. only 4 percent bad. Whether it’s the number of Props or the tens of millions of dollars involved, clearly the voters are becoming skeptical and/or cynical about Props, and institutions better take note.


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