Vargas: California experiment with direct democracy failed

For more than a century, California has been an experiment in a form of direct democracy, giving the “people” unprecedented and extensive power to shape its laws and reprimand its politicians through initiatives, referendums, and elections. revocations.

Only 5% of Californians working together can force a ballot proposal, a referendum on a bill, or a (insanely expensive) recall election for the state governor. In an election outside the year, this voting measure can then be adopted by much less than a majority of the electoral population. No other people in the nation enjoys such power.

Not surprisingly, this power has been used (and abused) in ways that are devastating for vulnerable communities and lucrative for local plutocrats. Today, the poster child of that failure is the impending recall of Governor Gavin Newsom, a recall election estimated to cost taxpayers $ 400 million.

Unlike Governor Gray Davis, whose universal unpopularity led to a successful recall in 2003, Gavin Newsom is remarkably popular for a governor in the midst of a crisis. Following the COVID-19 shutdown, 59% of Californians approve of his handling of the reopening of schools, 59% approve of his handling of the economy, and 56% oppose the recall effort.

And yet, a million and a half malcontents push us down this costly path. Republicans are lining up to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was elected to replace Gray Davis with a simple plurality, one of three Republicans in the past 30 years to occupy the governor’s chair without a majority mandate Californian voters.

As Senator Josh Newman points out, it seems like a real strategy. Force low turnout elections and win with less than a majority of the vote. The recall election, conceived as a majority control over the chief executive, was perverted into a minority takeover.

But the recall is just the latest insult inflicted on Californians by the decaying ruins of this populist experiment in direct democracy.

Following AB 5, a law that guaranteed carpool drivers access to benefits and a minimum wage, three major carpool companies put Proposition 22 on the ballot. They spent over $ 200 million on a stunning ad campaign promising minimum wage, minimal benefits, and low prices, and it worked. Millions of Californians voted to take away carpool drivers their right to all benefits and the right to organize. In a classic bait, the promised wages and benefits never materialized, and these companies raised prices to recoup the cost of the advertising campaign.

This should come as no surprise, however. Plutocrats and corporations have been using California’s direct democracy system to buy friendly laws from the start. Perhaps most blatantly was the South Pacific Railway when, in 1900, the company had a $ 2 billion bond proposal placed on the ballot for railway construction, the proceeds of which would go mostly to the railroads. company coffers.

In 2020 alone, nearly half of voting metrics were drafted, sponsored or funded by big corporations or a handful of wealthy individuals. Direct democracy is a great way to get rich or protect your business interests.

However, it would be unfair to say that the proposal system only benefits plutocrats. It also benefits the fanatics, who have repeatedly tried to enshrine bigotry into our (already bloated) state constitution.

Proposition 187 prohibits undocumented workers from accessing public services. Proposition 209 prohibited state and local governments from attempting to lessen and improve racial and gender discrimination, resulting in a massive drop in the number of students of color on all University of California campuses. Proposition 8 prohibits gays and lesbians from accessing marriage and its benefits. Two of them were later quashed as violations of basic human rights of Californians, illustrating how direct democracy in California has become a tool of oppression.

Don’t expect direct democracy to fix itself either. 2020 Proposition 15, for example, was designed to correct Proposition 13, a 1978 proposition so poorly drafted that UCLA law professor Donald Hagman accused the authors of being arrested for “drunk writing. “. Proposition 13 drained education funding to pay for tax breaks for homeowners and large businesses, which even anti-tax conservative economists have admitted has been ineffective and counterproductive. Proposition 15 would have closed the loophole for corporations and limited tax breaks to owners only, but it failed.

It’s time to admit the truth. The California experiment of direct democracy has failed, and this rotting corpse of a long-dead popular government is not going to be repaired. We just need it to end. End recalls. End referendums. End initiatives. It’s time to finally let direct democracy die in California.

San José Spotlight columnist Michael Vargas is a business and securities lawyer and part-time professor at the University of Santa Clara School of Law. Vargas also chairs the American Bar Association’s Committee on Business Law Education and sits on the Board of Directors of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, as well as on the boards of BAYMEC and the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce. Its chronicles appear every second Thursday of the month.


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