Voter-making through the ballot initiative process has been popular in California for more than a century.
So why is there almost constant talk of altering or limiting California’s direct democracy, including now, in the wake of last year’s recall gubernatorial election?
There are two answers to this question, one visible and one hidden. On the surface, would-be reformers generally say they want to make citizens’ legislation more effective and easier to understand for ordinary Californians. But beneath the surface, attempts to reform the process reflect deep tensions and disagreements over who — voters or elected officials — should wield dominant political power.
I know this model first hand due to my particular experience. As past president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, I am forever connected to the most famous initiative in California history, Proposition 13 to reduce property taxes. Over the past 30 years, I have been associated with four separate committees that have pursued the ballot reform initiative, the tool that allows voters to decide whether to make laws or constitutional amendments.
As Californians consider current efforts to change initiative and recall, looking back at these four efforts is instructive.
The action of the legislature created three of the committees. A fourth was made up of political activists, special interests and citizens’ groups. This fourth commission was the one that made changes to the system, including gaining legislative approval for some of the changes proposed by previous commissions.
And that’s no irony. I’ve learned that if you want to change direct democracy, it’s best to work outside of government, just as you do using direct democracy tools.
The history of the initiative and its direct-democratic cousins, the referendum and recall, stretches back more than a century to the Progressive era. As former California Governor Hiram Johnson, who led California’s direct democracy establishment in 1911, said in his first inaugural speech, initiative, referendum and recall are not panaceas for all our political ills, “yet they give the elect the power to act when desired, and they place in the hands of the people the means by which they can protect themselves.
On the contrary, Johnson underestimated the influence of direct democracy. At the start of the 21st century, then-Speaker of the Assembly Bob Hertzberg, who had long been involved in the initiative’s reform efforts, wrote, “The initiative process in California has become a fourth virtual branch of government.
While there is always room for tinkering to improve something, it is important to pay attention not only to the details of proposed changes, but also to the motives people have for tampering with public institutions. Efforts for change are often thwarted by concerns about shifts in politics and power.
This is part of the history of the four reform commissions on which I sat. The first, the Citizens’ Commission on Electoral Initiatives composed of 15 members, was created by a legislative resolution. The governor, senate, and assembly each appointed four members, and the attorney general, secretary of state, and county clerks association were also represented. I was appointed by the governor at the time. Peter Wilson.
In early 1994, the commission released its recommendations, including calling for legislative review of initiatives before they were put to the ballot and allowing corrections and modifications by supporters of the measure even after it passed. qualified for the ballot. The group also recommended extending the period for collecting signatures to qualify measures from 150 to 180 days (to make qualification a bit cheaper and easier) – time is money – and expanding disclosure requirements for financial contributions on initiative campaigns.
California’s arguments about direct democracy are best understood as political contests between the power of the legislature and other elected officials, and the power the people have in the legislative process.
Two years later, in 1996, Governor Wilson reappointed me to the 23-member California Constitution Review Commission, which was made up of other elected officials. This attempt to accommodate California’s long constitution tapped into direct democracy.
A proposal by the Constitutional Review Commission was to allow legislative initiatives to be amended by lawmakers after six years. I opposed this and other recommendations because they gave more power to the legislature, and less to the people, through the initiative process. And in practice, it wouldn’t work; initiative sponsors could block legislative changes to initiative laws by turning their initiatives into constitutional amendments, which cannot be changed directly by the legislature. “The end result,” I wrote in opposition to the idea, “will mean more amendments to the constitution, weighing down a document [commission] hoped to condense.
In 2001, Hertzberg, who led the assembly at the time, convened a 34-member commission on the California initiative process. Like the first commission I served on, it aimed to make it easier to collect petition signatures and release more public and financial information about the measures.
But the main recommendation of the President’s Commission was a call for the return of an indirect initiative – a type of initiative, abandoned in the 1960s, that allowed voters to make a proposal to the legislature. This effectively empowered the legislature to amend an initiative even after it qualified. It has not gained ground, precisely because of the transfer of power to politicians.
Interestingly, these three government-sponsored commissions released their results during election years. Legislators, uninterested in irritating a public fond of the initiative process, have made no progress on any of the recommended reforms.
Another decade will pass before I am drawn into another reform initiative. In 2014, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and the California Chamber of Commerce teamed up to create a committee not sponsored by a government resolution.
Although the approach was novel, this effort advanced ideas that had been part of previous reform attempts. These included extending the timeframe for qualifying an initiative from 150 to 180 days, providing more public information about ballot measures and their funding, and greater flexibility and space for negotiations – in particular, allowing proponents of an initiative to withdraw a qualified initiative if the legislature finds an acceptable alternative to the proponents’ proposal.
These ideas all had one thing in common: they strengthened the power of the people, not legislative power. That is why, in my opinion, the three recommendations finally became law.
Of course, attempts to increase the power of the legislature, at the expense of voters, continue – and occasionally they succeed. In 1996, the Constitutional Review Commission suggested limiting citizens’ initiatives that change the constitution to the November general election ballot, while allowing the legislature to put its own proposed constitutional amendments on any ballot. it wanted (general elections, primary ballots and special ballots).
This provision favoring the legislature was not enacted at the time, but returned in the 2010s, not through a commission, but through legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown.
Proponents of the change claimed it was democratic reform – that initiatives would be best voted on when higher voter turnout occurs in November elections. But the motives were more political; studies showed that turnout by liberals and progressives was stronger in November, and the Democrats who changed the law wanted the initiatives to appeal to a friendlier audience.
Today, new ideas are being debated, both within the legislature and by outside groups. Current proposals include recall reform in light of failed efforts to remove Governor Gavin Newsom; limit the power of special interests to control what voters see on the ballot and add more deliberation to initiative campaigns.
Even when considering new proposals, California’s arguments on direct democracy are best understood as political contests between the power of the legislature and other elected officials, and the power that the people have in the legislative process.
The power of initiative can challenge the status quo and advance political ideas different from the dogma advocated by the power. In the current Californian political environment, it is no secret that the dominant political power rests with the Democratic Party and a more progressive ideology. Challenges to this thinking can come from initiatives that gain broad voter support. You can see such challenges in recent initiatives and referendum results – maintaining the death penalty and cash bail, and allowing workers to continue freelancing and self-employment – which have not followed majority thinking. in the Democratic legislature.
Those who are tempted to limit the power of the people and increase their own must be careful. A poll last month from the Public Policy Institute of California reaffirmed what previous polls had found. Likely voters view the initiative process as a good thing as opposed to a bad thing by a margin of more than two to one, 67% to 31%.
Of course, this does not mean that people are opposed to reform. The PPIC poll found voters likely to consider major (33%) or minor (48%) changes to the initiative process.
I am one of those who would like to see a reform. Extending the qualifying time from 180 days to a full calendar year is worth considering as a way to help more grassroots groups and individuals use the power of initiative, I would also like to see the ability to write voting titles and summaries moved from the partisan Attorney General to a more neutral body. This issue was debated endlessly in the 2014 reform group but ultimately did not move forward.
What is most important is that reform proposals are carefully scrutinized, especially by voters, to protect popular initiative. In an election year, I don’t think we’ll see any big changes to the process, but there’s still 2023. What if we see another commission appointed or another committee convened – especially by someone other than the legislature – my schedule is open .