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On the 100th Anniversary of the Initiative, Taking Stock of Direct Democracy in California

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Gov Hiram Johnson, who with fellow Progressives instituted the initiative, the referendum, and the recall. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Monday marked the 100th anniversary of the landmark California election that introduced the initiative, the referendum, and the recall. AP last weekend ran a good history of these populist instruments of governance, including the political conditions that gave rise to them:

By the time of the statewide election on Oct. 10, 1911, voter discontent had reached a crescendo, with Californians feeling frustrated and disenfranchised.

Stories of political corruption and bribery trials of corporate executives and labor leaders were fixtures of the newspapers. The Southern Pacific Railroad controlled nearly every lever of power in California, including many of the state’s largest newspapers that were beholden to its advertising revenue. Lawmakers rode the rails for free and dined on the company’s dime.

Hiram Johnson, an upstart lawyer who had tried to elicit change from outside the halls of power, seized the moment. In his 1910 campaign for governor, he promised to end the tyranny of robber baron railroad officials and return power to the masses.

A hundred years later, there's a pretty widespread notion that the state’s ability to govern itself is broken, and some would say the tools of direct democracy forged in that bygone era are important contributing factors to the current lack of efficacy.

I asked KQED's resident expert on state government, Sacramento Bureau Chief John Myers, about the debate.

"There are two pretty indisputable facts about the system of direct democracy," Myers says. "First, one tool in particular -- the initiative -- is used far more than the other two (the referendum and the recall). And second, Californians, as measured in poll after poll, like having the power to take matters into their own hands.

That's not to say that Californians don't think there are ways to make the process better. But for all its flaws, voters like having a say on writing laws and amending the state's constitution."


Here's more on the issue from John Myers:

What are the criticisms of direct democracy as practiced in California?

Observers and experts generally make two observations about California's system of direct democracy: it's the most ironclad of its kind in the world (and some say that inflexibility is a problem), and the political world in which it thrives is far different than Gov. Hiram Johnson and his Progressive-era backers could have imagined in 1911.

First, the inflexibility: Once an initiative qualifies for the ballot, there's almost no going back. It can only be removed by the courts (in rare circumstances), and if voters approve it, it can usually only be stricken from the books or amended by -- you guessed it -- another initiative.

That means that the drafters of these initiatives, be they average citizens (whose ideas rarely make it to the ballot these days) or powerful interest groups, have little incentive to work with the Legislature to enact their plans, and almost no outside system to check whether the measure will have unintended consequences. If backers have the momentum and money, they can get pretty much get anything on the statewide ballot.

The referendum and recall are rarely used. Some observers have suggested that the referendum -- a method by which voters overturn decisions made at the state Capitol -- is actually the better tool than the initiative, and that it's a sensible check on the powers of elected leaders.

What are the leading reform suggestions being kicked around?

For the initiative process, the proposals include a new system to allow legislators the chance to write the proposal into law themselves and thus avoid an expensive campaign; changes to make it easier for grassroots groups to qualify an initiative rather than only well-funded efforts that pay several dollars per voter signature gathered; and requirements that any initiative proposing to spend tax dollars or cut taxes include a specific way to pay for that change in government funding (thus avoiding initiatives that only exacerbate the state's fiscal woes).

But the initiative process is enshrined in the California Constitution, and the only way to amend that document is by a vote of the people (either through a legislative ballot measure or an initiative ballot measure). Getting it on the ballot would be hard enough; winning a campaign that may be opposed by powerful defenders of the status quo is another.

Others have suggested making it easier to qualify a referendum -- thus, possibly channeling some of the energy away from initiatives. (I blogged on this back in August.)

Who are the defenders of the status quo?

In the most basic sense, the status quo consists of California's most powerful interest groups -- organized labor, big business, environmentalists, anti-tax advocates, and so on. That's not to say all of these groups like everything about California's system, but they have the most to lose if the rules change.

What are the chances any significiant changes to the system will be made in the near future?

It all depends on public sentiment. Government reform in Califorina largely has to happen through the ballot box, which means a campaign in which voters have to perceive something is a problem that needs fixing.

The other hurdle is that "reformers" (and there are several prominent reform groups out there) have to agree on exactly how to change the system. The lack of consensus among reform advocates -- plus the big bucks needed to run an effective campaign in California -- are the real hurdles.


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