Since 2000, California voters have trudged to the polls to decide policy issues so frequently that they have practically worn paths to the voting booths. They have been faced with a record 86 ballot propositions and, in approving 46 of them, have established a new milestone in direct democracy in the state. With three statewide ballot elections next year, and the Legislature increasingly unable to achieve consensus on the big issues facing the state, the policymaking burden will continue to fall on voters. Indeed, healthcare reform and new waterworks investments, the subjects of a special legislative session, look likely to become ballot measures in 2008.
But creating or changing laws at the ballot box has its flaws. Because voters aren’t policy analysts or constitutional lawyers, the initiatives they back sometimes don’t work in practice. For instance, Proposition 187, which would have banned government services to illegal immigrants, easily won at the polls but was subsequently gutted by the courts. And in 1996, voters passed Proposition 198, which would have created an open-primary system, only to watch the state Supreme Court throw it out.
Rather that depend on either the Legislature or the initiative process to resolve the big issues facing California, there’s a third way. It’s called “hybrid democracy.”
The rise of direct democracy this decade stems in large part from the Legislature’s increasing inability to govern. The reasons are fairly familiar. One is partisan gridlock caused by gerrymandered districts that favor political extremes, conservative and liberal. Another is term limits, which have deprived the Legislature of experienced members with an institutional memory. Add the two-thirds vote requirement in the Assembly and Senate for budget and tax matters, and you have a Legislature with its hands largely tied, leaving more of the big decisions to voters.
But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also greatly contributed to this trend of government by ballot measure. No other governor in California history has gone to the voters to accomplish his legislative agenda as frequently as he has. Although the record is mixed on this tactic -- all his reform initiatives were rejected in a 2005 special election, but more than $50 billion in fiscal-recovery and infrastructure bonds passed in 2004 and 2006 -- it is clear that it resonates with Californians.
Deciding public policy at the ballot box appeals to Californians’ populism, their distrust of government and their concerns about the influence of special-interest groups (though, ironically, many initiatives are the handiwork of special interests). For instance, a statewide survey done by the Public Policy Institute of California in August 2006 showed that six in 10 Californians said they think that voters make better policy decisions than elected leaders, and seven in 10 said it is a “good thing” that voters can make policy and change laws at the ballot box. These attitudes have been on the rise this decade.
Trust in state government, meanwhile, is falling. The institute’s September survey found that only three in 10 adults said they trust the government in Sacramento to do what is right always or most of the time, which is close to the low point reached just before the recall of Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. Solid majorities said they believe that state government is run mainly by special interests and that a lot of taxpayer money is wasted. Only one in three today approve of the way the Legislature is doing its job.
Is there a fix that could restore Californians’ confidence in their Legislature? One suggested solution, Proposition 56, would have lowered the two-thirds vote requirement to a 55% majority. But voters soundly rejected it in 2004, and the concept continues to be unpopular among the state’s distrustful voters.
Extending politicians’ tenures in office also seems an unlikely answer. A term-limits reform initiative on the Feb. 5 primary ballot would lengthen the amount of time a legislator can serve in one chamber. Currently, legislators are limited to three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year terms in the Senate. The initiative would allow lawmakers to spend a total of 12 years either in the Assembly, Senate or a combination of both. A majority of voters favors the measure, but they support it only because of its provision that total time lawmakers could serve would drop from 14 to 12 years, according to Public Policy Institute of California surveys. As for reforming the way California draws its electoral districts, voters spurned Schwarzenegger’s 2005 plan, which would have handed the job over to a panel of retired judges.
So ballot initiatives are going to be with us for a while -- with all their advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes voters will pass them, only to see them thrown out by the courts. Sometimes (as in 2005) the governor will want them approved, but the voters will say no. Sometimes, bad new laws will be approved at the ballot box.
What works best is “hybrid democracy” -- the Legislature and the voters working together. The truth is that voters don’t like to be asked to decide complicated public policy issues that legislators can’t settle. For instance, Schwarzenegger went around the Legislature in 2005 to qualify his reform initiatives, and all of them failed. But when elected leaders can reach a bipartisan consensus on these kinds of issues before placing them on the ballot, voters tend to follow their lead. For instance, in 2004 and 2006, the Legislature and the governor reached bipartisan agreement in placing the fiscal-recovery and public works bonds on the ballot, and the voters passed them.
It’s not always possible to reach bipartisan consensus. Some issues are still going to stymie the Legislature. But where possible, the lesson to legislators should be clear: Work the issues through wherever possible before putting them to voters. Healthcare reform and new water-delivery systems will probably end up on the ballot in one form or another, so lawmakers and the affected interests have every incentive to find common ground on the legislation before it gets there. If they succeed, voters are more likely to approve the measures. Only with this kind of partnership between elected leaders and voters can California move forward.