California: Taking the Initiative

Can California hold politicians and special interests accountable?

California has beautiful weather, towering sequoias and sweeping views of the Pacific. Sunny beaches, the hottest movie stars and Disneyland. We’re rapped about (California Love), rocked about (Californication) and talked about (The OC).

But California politics? While pundits ignore the state during the national elections, California voters actually have quite a lot to vote on: pesky things called initiatives, or propositions. During the Progressive Era, California enacted the recall, the referendum, and the initiative processes, all efforts to clean out corruption in Sacramento by promoting direct democracy. All it takes to place a proposition on the statewide ballot is a fee of $200 and signatures of registered voters equal to 5 or 7 percent—depending on the type of initiative—of the turnout of the previous gubernatorial election. Unfortunately, what progressives fought so hard to implement has now been hijacked by special interest groups that mask their agendas through massive marketing campaigns.

Due to the ease of getting an initiative on the ballot, in this election alone California voters can vote on 16 propositions, ranging from health policy to Indian gaming, from stem cell research to criminal law. By the next election, 16 might be considered chump change. In 1998, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reported that between 1976 and 1996, voters voted on 106 statewide ballot initiatives, up from 29 during the previous 20 years.

What makes state propositions especially troubling is that when enacted, they become binding constitutional amendments or inflexible law statutes, reducing budgeting flexibility. While the Founding Fathers had the smarts to know that frequent meddling with the U.S. Constitution by means of amendments would encourage tinkering based on impulse rather than reason, California has made such frequent and destabilizing alterations easy. Moreover, these initiatives create a false binary on issues that are often multifaceted. Facts become the first casualties, and complexities in the issues also disappear. Unlike the California Legislature, which can debate and amend bills, the public is forced to decide whether the benefits in the proposition significantly outweigh the flaws. Discussion and debate get replaced by simplistic, up-or-down voting.

When it’s that easy to play the initiative game, exploitation comes naturally. In the same PPIC report, it was noted that well-financed interest groups spent a record high of $140 million in the 1996 elections because no spending limits exist in initiative campaigns. While two out of three voters in a recent Field Research Corporation and California Health Care Foundation poll mentioned that state initiatives were a good thing, half also think proposition elections achieve the goals of special interests rather the goals of the people. And therein lies the problem. Voters want to be able exercise their right to make direct decisions, but are uneasy with how outside interests can take over the process.

Progressive mechanisms work; the recall in 2003, while much derided, correctly reflected voter anger at the partisan stalemate in Sacramento. So how can we make the system better? First, the state needs to enact spending limits on the amount individuals can donate to the special interest groups that back these propositions. Campaign finance laws protect the California Constitution by creating an environment that informs the citizenry without the excessive cash that flood the airwaves with misleading ads. Limiting the amount each person can contribute underscores that discourse should dominate instead of money. Second, California should have initiatives that don’t require binding budgetary constraints. More often than not, the budget figures proposed in these initiatives either underestimate or overestimate projected expenses on projects. The Legislature should be given more freedom to allocate money since situations are always ever-changing. Third, the state can make it tougher for initiatives to qualify for the ballot by requiring more signatures. Five percent is hardly proof of pressing urgency for change.

California can and should have an engaged electorate when making public policy. Simple changes can be made to those processes to guarantee that Californians use democracy effectively in making the Golden State even better.

Eric Lee ’08, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Weld Hall.