Testing for ballot turkeys

Tim Hodson is executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University.

Californians are again facing the consequences of our love affair with direct democracy. On Feb. 5, we will cast votes on seven ballot measures covering complicated policy issues like community college funding and gas-tax allocations. More technical still, there are four amendments on exactly how we should amend the state’s Indian casino compacts. And dozens more ballot measures are in the pipeline.

In an ideal world, we would weigh the arguments for and against each ballot measure, research the topic and read the entire text. But most people don’t have the time, energy or expertise to grapple with many of the issues raised. So here is an easy three-part test to screen out the real turkeys.

For each measure, ask yourself these questions, each rooted in the fundamental tenets of American democracy. If the answer to any of them is no, you should vote no on the measure.

Is the ballot measure democratic?


If a measure specifies that it can only be changed by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, be wary. If it requires an extraordinary supermajority like four-fifths, vote no. Most ballot measures in California become law if a simple majority of voters vote yes. This is consistent with the great principle of majority rule we all learned, starting in kindergarten. But proponents of some ballot measures are uncomfortable with majority rule and require that any changes to the enacted measure be made only by supermajority votes of the Legislature.

A two-thirds majority to amend a law is sometimes necessary but should be the exception. The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood this and deliberately rejected supermajority votes in Congress, save for four extraordinary circumstances, including impeachments and veto overrides. Unfortunately, Californians of late have forgotten the wisdom of the framers and have embraced supermajority requirements for nearly every ballot measure.

But extraordinary supermajority rules are shams, creating the illusion that a measure can be changed while making it nearly impossible to do so. For example, with California’s bicameral Legislature, a four-fifths majority requirement to amend means that a mere nine senators can thwart the actions of the Assembly and 31 other senators.

All laws, including those created by ballot measures, need to have an effective way of being amended because no law is perfect and change is a constant. Ballot measures requiring supermajority votes to change are both undemocratic and perilous.


Is the ballot measure funded?

If a measure creates new programs, new agencies or new government spending without saying where the money comes from, vote no. It is easy to write a ballot measure promising the world, but it is much tougher -- and politically risky -- to write a measure that specifies how those promises will be funded. Unfortunately, Californians have passed ballot measures creating programs that are ultimately not fully implemented because there is no funding. Proposition 83 from 2006, which requires registered sex offenders to wear an electronic tracking device for life, is one example. We’ve also approved mandating that a certain percentage of the state budget be spent on this or that without regard for the effect on other public services.

Is the ballot measure subject to checks and balances?

If a measure creates an agency or program outside the regular checks and balances of state government, vote no. Some ballot measure proponents are so contemptuous of the processes of democratic government, and so convinced of their own wisdom, that they write, and voters have approved, measures creating personal fiefdoms disguised as public agencies. Look at the legislative analyst’s summary and the pro and con arguments in your ballot pamphlet for telltale signs, such as: “revenues would be placed in a special fund” or “not be subject to civil service laws.” Proposition 71, passed in 2004 to create California’s stem cell research institute, comes to mind. These fiefdoms typically have funding sources outside the state budget process and are thus exempt from review or change by the governor or the Legislature. They are exempt from laws mandating public meetings, open records and conflict of interest restrictions.

In short, if a ballot measure can only be amended by supermajorities, if it promises no-cost programs, if it creates personal fiefdoms disguised as public agencies, vote no.