California’s much too simple majority

Neal Broverman is the associate editor of the Advocate and a contributing editor to the website Curbed LA.

Hoping to put a dent in the county’s crushing traffic, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board is considering asking for a new half-cent sales tax on November’s ballot. The money could help dig subways, lay track for light rail, buy clean-air buses and fund improvements to our crumbling freeways.

Meanwhile, a bunch of evangelicals have their own plan for your autumnal ballot. They’re offering up a constitutional amendment that could snatch away the marriage certificates that gays and lesbians will start getting on June 17.

Guess which measure has better odds of passing? If you said “the anti-gay initiative,” you would be correct. That outcome is not based on an assumption that most Californians are homophobic, but the fact that it will take just 51% of the electorate to write discrimination into our Constitution and a whopping 67% to invest in our infrastructure and environment.

The supermajority required for transit funding -- or to pass most taxes since Proposition 13 and siblings 62 and 218 -- is frustrating but not completely imprudent. Gobs of taxpayer money shouldn’t be tossed around without heavy scrutiny, especially in a state perpetually in the red. What is irrational is that any group with an agenda can fan out and gather about 690,000 signatures, and then change the California Constitution with a simple majority.


To qualify for the ballot, a petition for a constitutional amendment must have a number of signatures equivalent to 8% of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. (It’s just 5% for statutes.) The anti-gay- marriage coalition Protect Marriage, with help from paid signature gatherers, submitted more than 1.1 million signatures and qualified its initiative for the ballot on Tuesday.

So, how is it that state constitutions can be altered by such a small threshold of votes? (To date, 26 states have enacted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage with simple-majority votes.) Our federal Constitution is virtually immune to the whims of the public; it takes a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress to propose a constitutional amendment, and then it must be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

No state makes it that hard to change its own constitution, but some have more limits than California. Massachusetts, for instance, won’t allow any measure relating to religion. In 32 states, voters can’t even initiate the process of a constitutional amendment; it must be done through the legislature. California, a long-standing proponent of direct intervention by the electorate -- there will be at least eight propositions on the November ballot -- allows almost unlimited change to the Constitution by popular initiative. Our state is the poster child for direct democracy, an attribute as flattering as our air pollution or failing schools.

Some examples of what our activism has wrought:


* Proposition 187, approved by voters in 1994, was a statutory amendment to deny illegal immigrants basic social services, healthcare and public education. A federal court ruled it unconstitutional, and it soon died.

* Proposition 209, enacted in 1996, changed the Constitution to ban affirmative action in public institutions statewide.

* Proposition 73, on the ballot in 2005, would have changed the Constitution to require teenage girls to obtain parental notification before getting an abortion. It failed. California voters faced an almost identical measure a year later, Proposition 85. That failed too.

If you look up “direct democracy” in Wikipedia, you’re advised to also check the site’s “anarchism” reference. Of course, we all know Wikipedia is as unreliable as direct democracy, and for exactly the same reasons: Any Tom, Dick or Harry can alter the site’s 10 million articles. But even Wikipedia has people cleaning up the random, misinformed edits. California’s Constitution can’t say the same.