How the Initiative Culture Broke California

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Racks of firefighting hoses stand behind a voter casting his ballot at Fire Station 38, as people go to the polls for a special election called by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers to decide on statewide budget-balancing ballot propositions on May 19, 2009, in Pasadena

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More than 80 proposed initiatives have been approved for circulation, and experts expect eight to 10 to qualify for the November ballot. "Right now, anyone with $200 and enough signatures can put something on the ballot [in California]," says Mark Paul, a senior scholar with the New America Foundation's California Program. "People assume these things are vetted, but they are not." Twenty-four states allow citizens to make laws and constitutional amendments directly by way of the initiative process. Fred Kimball, the owner of Kimball Petition Management, believes initiatives are an answer to a legislative process he says is "handcuffed by a lack of bipartisanship and the effect of lobbyists." He says the initiative system gives people power to change things for the better.

Critics of direct mass democracy say many ballot measures are flawed and incoherent and that hot-button measures — such as initiatives on immigration, guns and offshore drilling — are designed to bring out certain groups of voters on Election Day. As Kimball points out, the biggest positive of the initiative process is that states with ballot measures as part of the political culture are more responsive to the citizenry than states without. The biggest negative is that the cumulative effect of initiatives — some of them constitutional amendments nearly cast in stone — severely hamstrings state legislators and governors as they do their jobs.

While it costs only $200 to file a proposed initiative, the work of collecting enough signatures is another matter. Putting a measure on the ballot requires money, which places the most powerful interest groups in the driver's seat. Qualifying a measure in California often costs more than $1 million, with initiatives for a constitutional amendment requiring 8% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, or 694,354 signatures, and a proposed law requiring 5%, or 433,971. The signatures must be gathered in 150 days.

Instead of turning to the initiative system, Paul and his New American colleague Joe Mathews recommend making more use of the referendum. "It's easier to write a new law, an initiative, than hold a referendum on a law the legislature has passed. Today, we have voters making laws. A better system is for voters to pass judgments on laws." At the moment, though, referendums have the same 5% signature requirement that initiatives do. Paul and Mathews suggest lowering that to 1%. They also suggest revising the initiative itself, requiring sponsors to submit them to the legislature, where lawmakers would write a counterproposal. On the ballot, voters would choose between the two options and indicate which proposal they prefer if both measures pass by more than 50%.

In response to the layers of initiatives that have made California government increasingly dysfunctional, the Bay Area Council business group announced a plan last year to put an initiative on the ballot to hold a new constitutional convention. But two weeks ago, its Reform California campaign ran out of money. One reason: Kimball's firm and others, fearing such a convention might change the initiative business, warned their contractors against carrying the petitions. Very few of the signature gatherers at the shopping malls across California are volunteers; nearly all are contractors like Birch, working for firms hired by the state's most powerful political players — many of whom like the system as it is.

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