Today marks 100 years since California dramatically reshaped its political landscape – the special election of October 10, 1911, resulting in the Golden State adopting the initiative process, thus giving the voting public a means of enacting laws and constitutional amendments without the help of their elected officials.
In the century since California became the 10th state in the U.S. to engage in such vox populi democracy, a long-running argument persists: are statewide initiatives helping or hurting the political process in California?
The math suggests that Californians, given the opportunity and the privilege, haven’t exactly been drunk with power.
Over the past century in the Golden State, 1,657 initiatives were titled and summarized for circulation (1,638 being direct initiatives). 1,220 of those initiatives – about three in four – failed to qualify for the ballot.
Of the 348 initiatives that did eventually make it to the ballot, only 116 were approved by California voters – a one-in-three success rate.
But consider what a different landscape it is, despite only a majority of those measures passing.
Without the initiative process, Californians over the past two decades would have been unable to vent their frustration with a myriad of hot-button policy topics that most state officials preferred to duck – that would include Proposition 187 (illegal immigration), Proposition 209 (racial quotas in public-university admissions), Proposition 227 (bilingual education in California grade schools).
So, moving forward, is it time for California to reconsider the benefit of the ballot?
That seems to hinge on one’s political bent.
Consider, for a moment, the plight of Republicans in California. There is no such animal as a GOP statewide officeholder. Republicans occupy barely one-third of the seats in each of California’s legislative bodies, thus making the party largely irrelevant in majority-rule budget debates – that is, unless higher taxes are on the table; then, a two-thirds majority is required. To the extent that a Democratic governor wants to play ball with the loyal opposition, it’s usually with one thought in mind. You guessed right: raise taxes.
For Republicans, that leaves the initiative process as the only reliably available means of advancing right-of-center ideas in California.
Which is something California Democrats are well aware of.
Which is why,on Friday -- just three days shy of the initiative’s 100th birthday and coinciding with the 8th anniversary of the historical gubernatorial recall election -- Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill preventing initiatives from being placed on California’s June 2012 primary ballot (ironically, it was then-Secretary of State Jerry Brown, some 40 years ago, who had no problem with the idea of running initiative slates twice in an election year).
Why Brown’s change of heart?
Answer: power politics.
In California, conservative ideas fare better in smaller-turnout primaries than they do in general elections with bigger left-of-center turnouts. 2012 is a prime example: the June primary will feature a GOP presidential slate and what should be a competitive U.S. Senate primary. On the Democratic side, barring a surprise decision by Sen. Dianne Feinstein not to seek re-election, there’s little in the way of drama. But come November, President Obama’s on the ballot and Democrats presumably will engage in bigger numbers.
Moreover, before Brown’s intervention, one such conservative idea – a big one – was headed for a showdown in June 2012: weakening Big Labor’s clout by preventing unions from collecting dues for political purposes without a worker’s annual consent. That gets moved to November.
Plus, by shoveling all 2012 initiatives into one November laundry pile, there’s a bonus-added for the left: the more initiatives there are on the ballot, the more sour voters tend to become . . . and the more likely that initiatives will be rejected en masse.
Although this could backfire against liberals when it comes to an idea the left craves – say, altering Prop 13 – in the bigger picture it’s the right being furthered hamstrung that matters more.
Advantage, Democratic status quo.
Political gamesmanship notwithstanding, the October 2011 century mark does provide a convenient milestone for discussing legitimate ways in altering California’s initiative process for the better.
Personally, I think the state needs to look into raising the threshold for signature-qualifying. Initiatives that raises taxes, engage in long-term borrowing or otherwise impact California's state budget should require a 55% supermajority, imo. I'm also interested in something along the lines of Arizona's ill-fated Proposition 105, which would have changed the approval of that state's ballot measures from a majority of voters to the equivalent of a majority of registered voters.