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Taking the Initiative: Are ballot propositions at the heart of California's political dysfunction?

by Damon Eris, published

A lengthy exposé in The Economist takes a detailed look at the history of California’s voter initiative process as it has evolved over the last century, and argues that the proposition system lies at the heart of the state’s political dysfunction.

Published in the April issue of The Economist, Andreas Kluth’s special report “Democracy in California: The people’s will” provides a broad overview of California’s ballot proposition system from its inception in 1911 to the pivotal political battle over Proposition 13 in 1978, and finally to the dysfunction that has come to define the state’s government today.  

It was in the special election of 1911, called by progressive Governor Hiram Johnson to counter the corruption engendered by the control of the Democratic and Republican parties and the Southern Pacific railroad, that California voters enthusiastically approved the adoption of voter referendums, recalls and initiatives.  Thus, unlike the Swiss system on which it was based, California’s initiative process was not oriented toward compromise and consensus, but confrontation. 

     “Initiatives,” writes Kluth, “had the most potential to turn politics upside down. They turn voters into legislators, since a successful initiative becomes statute . . . initiatives can even turn voters into founding fathers who amend the state constitution.”  

In the first half of the twentieth century, voter initiatives were rarely found on the ballot.  Beginning in the 1970’s, however, the number of propositions increased by leaps and bounds.  In the 1960’s, just 9 initiatives qualified for the ballot. In the 1970’s there were 22.  In the following decade, the number of initiatives more than doubled once again: 46 ballot propositions were decided upon in the 1980’s.  In the 90’s, there were 61, and over the course of the last decade there were 74.  

As Kluth points out, California’s ballot propositions are also becoming ever more complex and difficult to comprehend.  

     “In the 1980s each typically contained between 1,000 and 3,000 words, which seems more than long enough. But nowadays they often exceed 10,000 words apiece. Two measures on the 2006 ballot weighed in at more than 17,000 words . . . And one ballot can contain a dozen of these,” The Economist reports. 

Thus, voters rely on media reports and television attack ads to form their judgments on a given measure.  Needless to say, these are not always the most reliable sources.  

Kluth contrasts California’s experiment in direct democracy with the system of checks and balances championed in The Federalist Papers.  Since the initiative process relies upon majority support of voters and can easily be hijacked by well-funded special interests, it is at odds with the republican form of government envisioned by the founders, he argues.  

     “It has no safeguards against Madison’s tyranny of the majority . . . Above all, it is not a system intended to contain minority factions . . . Madison and Hamilton would have been horrified,” writes Kluth.

Kluth concludes his investigation with a number of ideas for reform.  Among other things, he suggests that referendums should be encouraged and initiatives discouraged, that initiatives should be simpler and only enact statutes rather than amend the state’s constitution, and that sunset provisions should be included in all initiatives so that they must be reauthorized by a later proposition or by an act of the legislature.

Ironically, though he makes a strong case against the initiative process, Kluth voices support for reform by means of further voter initiatives such as those which recently created the state’s top two open primary system and Independent redistricting commission.  On this score, however, it is noteworthy that both of these reforms were aimed at reining in the excesses of the ruling parties, and both major parties have already begun implementing strategies to circumvent at least one of them, as Chris Guzman reported here last week. 

Significantly, one term that does not appear in The Economist’s special report is ‘party system’.  Despite his many invocations of the founding fathers, Kluth manages to avoid any discussion of the two-party system by directly equating Madison’s idea of ‘faction’ with our contemporary notion of ‘special interests’.  In this way, he minimizes the role played by the major parties themselves in fomenting the political dysfunction that serves as the starting point of his investigation. 

Had he rather begun by equating Madison’s notion of faction with the idea of party, a very different report would have resulted.  As George Washington famously stated in his farewell address: 

     “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”