The Voters’ Guide to the Direct Democracy Blues

I knew we were in trouble when the official Voters’ Guide arrived earlier this year. It was the size of a small-town phone book, studded with legalistic and often arcane discussions, with choices like Props 7 and 10, that sometimes seemed to repeat themselves. Others asked us to vote “yes” in order to say “no” (Prop 8) and all told, would have drained more than $21 billion dollars out of our state’s already depleted treasury.

My first thought was, why do we vote on so many issues? Between legislative work-arounds and state constitutional amendments, Californians voted on 12 state-wide measures in November and a total of 21 such measures through all of 2008 – far and awa the most of any state (second place was Colorado with 14). And this total doesn’t include local measures on issues as crucial as school funding and zoning regulations.

Four of the nation’s wealthiest men took major roles in supporting five of this year’s initiatives, and if you think T. Boone Pickens was only interested in the welfare of the planet when he supported more wind power, check out his investment in that technology.

Isn’t it the job of our elected representatives to make the tough decisions on our behest? Isn’t direct democracy reserved for quaint town hall meetings in New England? We normally govern our nation on the principle that a small number of people are elected to make decisions on national, state and local levels on behalf of the rest of us. If we don’t care for their votes, we can boot them out of office next time around.

Yet California’s voter initiative process has made direct democracy the norm for so many issues that the work of our representatives in the Legislature has become nearly perfunctory. (Well, there is that annual haggle over the budget – but that’s just good, clean political fun). The fact is, voters have taken away the right of our legislative body to control major chunks of California’s budget such as education and infrastructure funding. Initiatives have also removed many of the tough ethical calls from the Legislature, including the right to use medical marijuana and the right of same-sex couples to marry. We voters recently decided to cut short a governor’s four-year-term much as a sports team owner might fire a manager mid-season because things just weren’t going very well.

In the recent vote against same-sex marriage, there is now evidence that numerous Californians regret their choice. Some may not even have understood what their “yes” vote meant on Prop 8, since it was actually a “no” vote on the right of same sex couples to marry. And why would anyone be surprised that there is rampant confusion? People aren’t reading newspapers anymore, and yet we expect our citizens to consume, digest and intelligently act on an encyclopedia of pro and con positions.

These decisions are being taken on by the populous while we continue to pay our legislators handsomely to do other things. Are we getting the value we should from Sacramento? Don’t the rest of us deserve some pay for our hard work wrestling with the tough issues of governing the nation’s largest state?

Perhaps the answer is to set the bar higher for ballot qualification (Read about the process here). Despite what sounds like daunting odds, it turns out to be pretty easy to get a measure in front of the voters. But there are no requirements for keeping the language of the initiative clear, brief and in regular English or for providing that kind of simplified, unbiased explanation to anyone asked to sign the qualifying petition. If page after page of explanation is required in a voters’ guide, then a minimal pro-and-con statement should also be part of the requirement before a signature is given.

Public information about the cost of the ballot initiatives process itself should be publicized. California’s citizens need to understand the true cost of going direct – including the lost value of taking so much decision-making out of the hands of our paid legislators. Then, direct democracy could be repositioned as the exception to the rule, rather than a mainstay of California elections.