Op-Ed: Can Californians handle direct democracy?

Jerry Brown speaks at a rally against Proposition 53
California Gov. Jerry Brown and others express their opposition to Proposition 53 at the United Firefighters headquarters in Los Angeles on Nov. 3.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

In 1911, the people of California amended the state Constitution to provide for the initiative, the referendum and the recall. These reforms were part of a citizen rebellion against a legislative system that had been controlled and corrupted by corporate interests. The reformers’ goal was to give citizens the power to go over the Legislature’s head when it failed to reflect the will of the people. It enabled voters to initiate legislation and constitutional amendments, repeal laws or remove from office individuals who had lost their confidence.

This Tuesday’s lengthy ballot has caused some pundits to ask whether the initiative system has run amok. Preparing for the election has become akin to studying for a final exam, with a voter guide that could be mistaken for a phone book. The propositions are varied and complex, and there is an inclination on the part of the political class to doubt that California citizens can wisely render decisions on the issues placed before them.

But I tend to think that Californians are more sophisticated than elites may realize, and that the initiative system, over time, has resulted in mostly good outcomes.

Voters may be surprised to learn that Tuesday’s ballot, with its 17 statewide measures, is not the longest ever; not even close.

A good deal of grumbling about the process, besides, is either misinformed or misdirected — starting with the length of the ballots. The initiatives are not the culprit. While there have been more than 1,200 ballot measures decided by California voters in the last century, two-thirds of them have been placed on the ballot by the Legislature. That’s because voter approval is required whenever the legislature seeks to amend the Constitution, raise taxes, incur debt or amend laws previously approved by voters.

And voters may be surprised to learn that Tuesday’s ballot, with its 17 statewide measures, is not the longest ever; not even close. In fact, 30 times in the last century there have been 17 or more state propositions on a single ballot, the record being 48.

There are distinct similarities in the types of issues that voters have been asked to decide, which reflect Californians’ social mores over the last century. Measures to prohibit, allow, tax or regulate such “vices” as alcohol, cigarettes, narcotics and even gambling appear repeatedly. Changing attitudes towards crime and punishment are revealed through measures that have sought to impose stiffer or more lenient prison sentences, offer treatment instead of jail time for drug crimes, and repeal the death penalty.

While the preponderance of ballot issues have been authored by the Legislature, it is the citizens initiatives that Californians tend to remember. For example, a citizens initiative led to Proposition 20 in 1972, which created the Coastal Zone Conservation Act, aimed at protecting California’s coastline from massive development and environmental degradation. Likewise Proposition 9, the Political Reform Act of 1974, created the Fair Political Practices Commission, which regulates campaign finance, lobbying activity and conflicts of interest among the state’s public officials.


Neither Prop. 20 nor Prop. 9 received political support in Sacramento, and these landmark reforms would not have seen the light of day but for the initiative process.

Citizens have also sought to amend the state Constitution in ways that the Legislature refused to entertain. The most noteworthy may have been Proposition 13 in 1978, which limited property taxes and restricted government’s ability to otherwise tax its citizens. Prop. 13 might never have been proposed had the Legislature, then sitting on a $7-billion surplus, used its powers and the surplus to mitigate the huge property tax increases that were hitting homeowners up and down the state.

The initiative process is not perfect and at times has led to unconstitutional results that were ultimately struck down by the courts. Proposition 14 in 1964 repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act that had prohibited racial discrimination in housing. It passed overwhelmingly, but the state Supreme Court overturned it in 1966 and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that decision two years later. Proposition 8 in 2008 sought to ban same-sex marriage. It narrowly passed, but the courts overturned that measure as well.

It’s also true that, in the last few decades, for-profit and not-for-profit groups have learned to use the initiative process to promote their interests and are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get their way. But this hasn’t dulled the instincts of California voters.

In 2010, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. placed an initiative on the ballot to guard its profits by squelching the formation of new municipal or community-based utilities. PG&E spent nearly $50 million to pass this measure, outspending its opponents by 500 to 1. Voters rejected it. On the worthy side, a coalition of children’s hospitals has twice in the last 12 years placed bond issues on the ballot to raise nearly $2 billion for their capital needs, spending roughly $13 million to communicate their message to the public. Voters approved those measures. Indeed, citizens have more often than not been able to discern right from wrong and the prudent from the imprudent.

While the 1911 reformers might be shocked to read some of the measures on Tuesday’s ballot — such as legalizing marijuana and requiring porn actors to use condoms — they would probably be delighted to see that voters are still trusted to weigh in on taxes, constitutional amendments, proposed new statutes and cutting-edge social issues.

Part of citizenship in this state means boning up on ballot measures every two years. On balance, this experiment in civic participation and responsibility has worked, and Californians are better off with it than without it.


Zev Yaroslavsky is Director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. He is a former member of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

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