A Century of Direct Democracy in California

A century ago, on October 10, 1911, Californians adopted a legislative referendum that created the initiative (and referendum) in California.  Critics today bemoan the fact that direct legislation in California is big business.  Special interests have used the process to pass countless propositions. In recent years, Californians have approved statewide citizen-initiated ballot measures reducing property taxes, giving citizens the right to vote on local taxes, banning social services for illegal immigrants and gay marriage, ending affirmative action and bilingual education programs in the public schools, increasing the tobacco surtax for state and county childhood education and health programs, permitting gaming on Indian reservations, allowing the prescription of medical marijuana, bolstering the minimum wage, limiting the term limits of government officials, and restricting campaign contributions.  Of the 24 states that permit the initiative, California had the second most initiatives on the ballot over the past hundred years, trailing only Oregon.

The initiative – the process whereby people collect a specified number of valid signatures to place either a statutory measure or constitutional amendment on the ballot for fellow voters to adopt or reject – has garnered its share of critics over the years.  In condemning the current practice, many journalists claim that the initiative today is distinct from that of yesteryear, as special interests today are undermining the once-populist tool of citizen lawmaking.  Lamenting the loss of purity of these once populist tools, journalist Charles Mahtesian has lambasted California’s initiative as a “grassroots charade” and beloved Washington Post pundit David Broder once wrote that the initiative “threatens to challenge or even subvert the American system of government.”  Rather than citizen groups utilizing the initiative process, critics maintain that narrow economic interests now dominate the process, as corporations pay signature gathering firms thousands of dollars to circulate petitions and spend millions of dollars on thirty-second TV spots.  Former Sacramento Bee editorial page editor Peter Schrag claimed more than a decade ago that the “the people’s remedy” has been ironically co-opted by the “‘the interests’ – the insurance industry, the tobacco companies, the trial lawyers, public employee unions.”  Schrag contended that special interests in California “are themselves running and/or bankrolling ballot measures to advance their economic agendas.”  Finally, in her portrait of California’s 1996 anti-Affirmative Action initiative, Proposition 209, journalist Linda Chavez painted a grim picture of direct legislation.  “The initiative process was first envisioned as a populist tool,” Chavez wrote, although today “anyone with a million dollars to pay for the signatures necessary to put an initiative on the ballot can attempt to enact laws or change a state constitution.”

Embedded in these contemporary accounts is the implicit assumption that vested interests and professionals were somehow not as influential during the Progressive Era.  Unfortunately, few scholars have documented which groups supported and opposed ballot measures or how initial campaigns were actually conducted.  Yet some archival research I have done in California and other states suggests that initiative campaigns during the Progressive Era were just as much a product of wealthy special interests as those today.   Early ballot campaigns in California were not exclusively amateur or grassroots endeavors, as is generally assumed.  The role of vested interests in ballot campaigns during the Progressive Era in California was considerable, though very few of the first initiatives placed on the ballot via the initiative were approved by the voters. In 1912, for example, Californians defeated all three initiatives on the ballot; in 1914, citizens rejected 11 of the 17 initiatives;  in 1916, three of the four initiatives went down to defeat; in 1918, voters defeated  four of the five initiatives; and in 1920, Californians rejected seven of the 10 initiatives.  Over the first five elections, only 11 of 39 (28 percent) were approved by the voters. Among the measures Californians rejected were initiatives calling for an eight-hour work day, measures banning bookmaking and the sale of liquor, and initiatives calling local taxation and government consolidation, absentee voting, and the regulation of investment companies and dentists.

The real question to ask, then, is perhaps not what happened to California’s mythical amateur initiative process, but why Californians are seemingly more willing to support ballot measures sponsored by vested interest than in the past.  The reason, I suspect, has as much to do with the poor public opinion towards the California legislature today. A recent PPIC poll found that only 26 percent of Californians approve of the job the state legislature is doing, with 56 percent disapproving.  With such disapproval, why not trust instead the sponsors of ballot measures?  Not surprisingly, over 60 percent of those polled by PPIC say they are “either very satisfied (12%) or somewhat satisfied (50%) with the way the initiative process is working in California today.”

This is not to say that California’s initiative process is without flaws. The process today is as fallible as it was a century ago.  Californians know this to be true, as the PPIC poll finds. A bipartisan majority of those polled support “requiring initiatives that create new programs or reduce taxes to identify a specific funding source,” and requiring “a system of review and revision of proposed initiatives to try to avoid legal issues and drafting errors.”

A first step is making the initiative process more transparent. Governor Jerry Brown could take this initial step by signing SB 202,  which will require all statewide initiatives to be placed on November general election ballots, concurrent with either a presidential or gubernatorial election.  The ball is in Governor Brown’s court, though he has already dropped it on two other legislative efforts to reform California’s initiative process.

Reforming the initiative process in California is an easy task compared to the one really plaguing California. The real issue facing the state is whether the state legislature will reform itself so that Californians will regain confidence in the legislative process. This will take considerable effort, but until it is achieved, Californians will continue to invest their trust in the initiative process, as flawed as it may be.  And if the legislature doesn’t clean up its own house soon, the citizens of California may take to the initiative to do it themselves.