I am in conflict with direct democracy. I want to stay in the tradition of the Californian progressives who, in a special election of 1911, brought voting initiatives to the state as a means of combating the corrupt influence of the Southern Pacific Railroad in Sacramento. But when Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper can get a dumb and dangerous proposal to break state into thirds on the ballot, I start thinking again.
In November, we will be voting on Draper’s Cal-3 measure. It is a monumental proposition – to destroy a state – and such a notion should not be decided by a single simple majority vote, not least because we the people might not understand how destructive it could be. This is likely unconstitutional, and if it passes (unlikely) and survives legal scrutiny (unlikely), it would create hordes of economic, political and cultural losers and very few winners. (The latter would be mainly in the new state of Northern California, where Draper lives, surprise, surprise.)
Besides, we’ve already fixed that. In the 158 years since the state’s inception, there have been over 200 attempts to partition California. (One, the Pico Act of 1859, named after its sponsor Andrés Pico, approached: it was adopted by the Legislative Assembly and was signed by Governor John B. Weller, only to be scuttled by the civil war.)
Draper himself has tried and failed. His 2014 attempt (six Californias) did not attract enough petition signatures to qualify, despite the billionaire’s $ 5.2 million investment in the petition campaign. To get Cal 3 on the ballot, Draper introduced it as a law rather than a constitutional amendment; the first requires fewer signatures. It still cost him around $ 2 million.
What an outrageous waste of time, money and political energy, especially when it is clear that a unified Golden State is a crucial counterweight in Washington.
So the Cal-3 initiative is not a brilliant political idea as Sacramento is too narrow-minded to take heed. Rather than confronting “special interests” the proposal represents one: Draper – a guy who is rich enough to interfere in our lives while making fun of a process designed to help the little guy.
“Because we have a lot of rich people in this state,” Shaun Bowler, political science professor at UC Riverside, explained last month, “we have a lot of people who say, ‘Hey, I got 1 million dollars that burns a hole in my pocket. Do you know what I think should happen with the condition? I think we should make Klingon the official language.
Bowler’s analogy is overstated, but it actually underestimates the numbers at stake. Draper, remember, spent five times that amount and failed to get his 2014 effort on the ballot. And once a proposal is qualified, the ensuing “yes” and “no” campaigns cost several millions more. The high price of proposition politics means that the rich have special access to our legislature.
Of course, not all initiatives are as pernicious as Draper’s selfish dream of a divided state. In 2016, more than 100 measures were proposed; 17 qualified, including one that I enthusiastically supported: Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana.
As an example of direct democracy, 64 is an interesting case. Legalization had long had the support of a majority of state voters, yet our elected officials found it too politically risky to touch it. Without electoral action, this was unlikely to happen. Yet, however correct the cause, Proposition 64 was also an example of special interest, big money politics.
According to one indictment, the successful “Yes on 64” campaign spent $ 15.9 million; and his opponents, $ 1.4 million. Ordinary people have surely donated, but so have wealthy ideologues (Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster, donated $ 7.3 million) as well as entrepreneurs eyeing a legal pot deal that could be worth Billions.
Not only that, but in 2016 Proposition 64 was only the fourth costliest ballot measure. In total, over $ 480 million was spent on the 17 initiatives of the year. No other state comes close to such numbers.
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“There are ways to make the process less expensive and more democratic,” wrote Joe Mathews, California editor of Zócalo Public Square, in a May column. A citizens’ committee could “study the initiatives suggested by ordinary citizens and put the best to the polls, instead of demanding costly petitions.” Or the deadline for collecting signatures could be extended. Promoters only have six months to get hundreds of thousands of valid signatures. If they were, say, two years old, that would cut costs dramatically.
The Public Policy Institute of California reports that 72% of state residents “think it’s a good thing that a majority of voters can make laws and change public policies by adopting initiatives.” But we also think the process could be improved.
Cal 3 could be the agent of change we need. It’s a waste of time, money, and outrageous political energy, especially now, when it’s clear that a unified Golden State is a crucial counterweight in Washington.
One hundred years ago, the process of initiative broke the open state government for the people. It was never designed to function as a rich man’s toy.
David L. Ulin is a contributing Opinion writer.