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Build a better ballot measure

June 20, 2005

The issues facing voters in the special election are more proof of the need for initiative reform.

Even former California Gov. Hiram Johnson worried about ballots that were too complicated for voters to understand.
The father of the state's initiative process wanted to simplify the ballot by making most statewide offices appointed, not elected.

"The people must be able to see what they are doing; they must know the candidates," he said. "Otherwise they are not in control of the situation but are only going through the motions of controlling."

Johnson didn't apply the same concern to initiatives, which he also proposed in that historic 1911 inaugural address.
But if he had worries back then about "blind voting," as he called it, he'd surely wonder about the doozy of a ballot that voters will face this fall, now that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called a special election.

Remember that even state lawmakers didn't understand the complexity of the energy market when they voted unanimously to deregulate the industry nearly a decade ago. This fall, however, voters are expected to decide on a new regulatory system for the California energy market.

Health care costs are complicated enough, but two measures headed for this ballot include competing proposals about drug prices, one offered by consumer groups and one by the pharmaceutical industry.

Redistricting sounds simple. Who should draw the boundaries for political districts, the Legislature or an independent panel? But a campaign will be confusing. Competitors will claim that it's necessary to reform a dysfunctional Legislature; that it's a Republican power grab or that it really won't make that much difference anyway.

As all of this sinks in on voters later this year, it's a good time to talk about the health of our direct democracy in California. We've moved well beyond any question about whether initiatives are a good thing or a bad thing. After two generations of growing distrust in government, the California electorate has embraced its role as the legislative body for major change in state policy.

But while California voters strongly support their right to the initiative process, about three-quarters say the process needs improvement. And about one-third say there's a need for major change. That's a pretty broad consensus about flaws in the process when so much of California's future is going to be shaped by ballot box decisions.

The concerns aren't new. In 1996, the bipartisan Constitution Revision Commission warned that initiatives "originally intended to break the grip of special interests on the legislative process, used in place of the legislature for major public policy decisions." The 23-member group recommended several changes that were never seriously considered.

But things have changed. Today, there are at least three reasons that the upcoming special election should prompt a renewed discussion.

One is that initiatives have recently assumed a new function as they're being used by the governor. They're no longer just a method for citizens or interest groups to seek policy change. Schwarzenegger is using the California electorate as a substitute Legislature when he can't win approval of his plans through the Assembly and Senate. In the long term, that's not healthy. As our Founding Fathers warned, laws designed for popular appeal will lack the foresight and consideration that can only be offered by representative government.

The second reason is the special election. Until 1960, California, like many other states with initiative laws, tried to maximize participation in ballot decisions by allowing initiatives to be considered only in a general election. Turnout for the upcoming special election is very difficult to predict, but it's likely to draw fewer voters than a typical primary, which is usually less than a third of those eligible. Not everyone votes on each ballot measure either. In last November's election, at least 17 percent of voters who went to the polls did not cast a vote on all the initiatives.

Finally, even among recent issue-packed ballots, this one promises to be especially complex and highly charged.
Millions of dollars are at stake for the drug and energy industries as well as for labor unions. Meanwhile, with a ballot likely to include redistricting, the governor's clout and a measure to reduce labor's campaign contributions, this election is a political jihad for both parties.

The first step toward change is to understand that California's process is unique compared with other states.'

Only 24 states allow voter initiatives, and three of those are limited to constitutional amendments only. No state has considered more initiatives in the last 30 years than California, and only Oregon comes close. California is also the only state that does not allow the Legislature or the initiative proponent to repeal or amend a ballot measure. It also has the second shortest period for signature gathering and - in raw numbers - the largest signature requirement.

Unlike California, 11 of the initiative states restrict or ban measures that impact the state budget. And 13 require that signatures to qualify an initiative be distributed geographically throughout the state.

Clearly, it's possible to consider changes to the initiative process that don't threaten the authority that voters treasure. The goal of reform should be to improve the quality of ballot decisions and to encourage better performance from representative government.

Today's initiative process is adversarial to representative government. Each successful initiative becomes a vote of no confidence in a Legislature unwilling or unable to pass a popular reform. So with no attempt to involve policymakers in the crafting of initiatives, the process encourages the dangerous and growing divide between voters and their government.

There is another way, which has been endorsed by a number of good-government organizations. Known as the "indirect initiative," the change would allow petitioners to force the Legislature to respond to their proposal. The Legislature could adopt the idea as law or modify it with approval from the proponents. If it was rejected, it would move to the ballot, as it does now.

Polls show three leading complaints about the initiative process in California - it's controlled by special interests, it's too confusing and, too often, ballot measures are overturned by courts. All three concerns could be improved by an indirect initiative process.

Drafting flaws might be corrected through legislative review so more ballot measures pass legal muster. Legislative hearings and votes would also inform voters about the issues and provide cues from the votes of lawmakers they know. The number of signatures required to qualify a ballot measure could also be lower for indirect initiatives, thereby opening the process beyond wealthy special interests.

Eight states have indirect initiatives today, including two that allow voters to choose either a direct or indirect route. California also allowed indirect initiatives until 1966, when the option was stopped for lack of use. The problem was that the Legislature was part-time, and the initiative process could take more than two years. But with today's full-time Legislature and a set of mandatory deadlines, the process could be efficiently timed.

As Hiram Johnson said in his inaugural address, "The problem first presented to us, is how best can the government be made responsive to the people alone?" The initiative process is a long way from his original design, but reform is consistent with his vision. To continue with the status quo is to break with Johnson's goal.

About the writer:

* David Lesher is California program director for the New America Foundation in Sacramento.


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