Op-Ed – Proposition Overload

Here are some things you should know about ballot initiatives in California.
In all of the 1960s, there were only nine statewide initiatives placed on the ballot. In the 1970s, that number rose to 22. In the 1980s, Californians were asked to vote on 46; then, in the 1990s, it climbed to 61. So far in this decade, there already have been 63 — and there’s still a year to go, with a possible special election in June.
That’s a record every decade — and a sevenfold increase over 50 years.
Here’s something else: Supporters and opponents of these initiatives are spending more and more money to ensure that their side wins: $9 million in 1976, $127 million in 1978 (the year of Proposition 13), $140 million in 1996, $280 million in 2004 and $330 million in 2006 — a 37-fold increase in 30 years.
This money comes from individuals, corporations and unions, but increasingly it comes in large chunks — very large chunks. In the 1990 elections, for example, one-third of all contributions for initiatives were given in amounts of $1 million or more. In 2006, it jumped from one-third to two-thirds. One person — real estate heir and Hollywood producer Stephen Bing — gave more than $46 million of his own money to support the (unsuccessful) 2006 initiative to impose oil depletion taxes.
Last week, Californians voted on 10 statewide initiatives (five of them placed on the ballot by billionaires) plus two measures put on the ballot by the Legislature. This is more initiatives than usual, although not the most. The record was set in November 1990, when 18 initiatives plus 10 legislative measures were on the ballot.
What all this suggests is that California’s policy agenda today is increasingly driven by ballot initiatives rather than by the elected members of the Legislature. Prompted in many cases by legislative deadlock or legislative inaction, these initiatives effectively shift the policymaking burden to voters, and often leave them overwhelmed and bewildered by poor drafting, misleading campaigns, look-alike counter-initiatives and highly technical policy details.
The ballot initiatives that voters are being asked to decide are too often lengthy, rigid, inflexible and error-prone. The initiative process is badly outdated and needs to be reformed.
What can be done? The most important reforms would reduce the number of initiatives on the ballot, improve the quality of those that do make it on the ballot and strengthen voter information.
For instance, if an initiative is on the ballot, but at the last minute the Legislature adopts its language (or an acceptable compromise) into law, then the proponent of the initiative should have the option of withdrawing the initiative from the ballot. This would help solve the problem of poor drafting and mistakes.
Currently, initiatives must remain on the ballot even if the Legislature adopts the same measure into law. This leads to ridiculous situations like the one this year over Proposition 91, a measure dealing with the use of gas-tax money, which had already qualified for the ballot when the Legislature passed a law addressing the issue. Unfortunately, it was too late to remove it from the ballot, and as a result, the measure’s original supporters urged Californians to vote no on it.
Voters also should be given more and better information on ballot initiatives. The secretary of state should update and improve its website to include video statements from proponents and opponents. In addition, the ballot pamphlets that go out to each voter should contain a full page listing the supporters and opponents of each measure. Voters, particularly when considering confusing propositions, often take cues about what to support from those who have endorsed or opposed the measure.
Another useful reform would be to extend the circulation period for initiatives to one year (rather than the current 150 days, which is among the shortest in the nation) in order to allow more grass-roots circulation of initiatives. This would put citizen proponents, who must rely on volunteers to circulate signature petitions, on a somewhat more level playing field with well-financed proponents.
Initiatives should not impose supermajority requirements on future legislative or voter actions unless they pass by the same supermajority. In other words, a measure passing by 51% could not require a 67% vote in the future, say, to raise or lower taxes. Simple majorities should not be permitted to disenfranchise larger future majorities.
Direct democracy is an extremely important and valuable part of California’s political process. Ballot initiatives have been used to write, debate and adopt many of the state’s most important laws. And California voters remain committed to the process, which many see as a rare and precious flowering of democracy, a remedy of last resort for a public often frustrated by an unresponsive government.
Improving the flexibility of the process by reducing the number of initiatives that appear on the ballot, reducing the influence of money over the process and enhancing voter information — these reforms can address the public’s concerns while preserving the essence of the initiative process.

By Robert M. Stern and Tracy Westen

Robert M. Stern is president and Tracy Westen is chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Los Angeles that recently published “Democracy by Initiative: Shaping California’s Fourth Branch of Government.”

This article was originally published on November 10, 2008 in the Los Angeles Times