As I’ve said publicly time and again, I’m unequivocally ambivalent about direct democracy. I’ve written a book critical of the populist rhetoric (faux populism) of ballot measures, and another praising the “educative effects” of direct democracy. My dozens of articles on direct democracy are empirically driven, as I’ve tried to keep a normative-neutral stance in my academic writings. Direct democracy is by no means a perfect system, but neither is representative democracy.
As with every other state, the record of direct democracy in California is certainly mixed. Direct democracy just happens to be more prevalent in California than most other states. It trails only Oregon in the number of initiatives that have been qualified for the ballot since the state adopted the process in 1911.
Over the next century, hundreds of initiatives will again surely become qualified for the ballot. Just this last week, Governor Jerry Brown took a courageous step to improve the process by signing Senate Bill 202, which now limits California ballot initiatives to November elections. Besides the expected charges that the bill will help Democrats by having initiatives on the ballots in higher turnout elections, critics of SB 202 claim that citizens may be overwhelmed by the number of propositions that are expected to appear on general election ballots. Yet since 1912, California has averaged only 6.3 initiatives every two-year election cycle. Certainly, potential voters can handle this level of initiatives. Indeed, the state managed to survive the 1914 ballot, which had more than 40 statewide measures (initiatives, popular referendums, and legislative referendums)! (Citizens wound up rejecting 11 of the 17 initiatives.)
Despite its flaws,there’s much to admire about the initiative process in California. The state has one of the best disclosure laws on the campaign financing of ballot measures, and as I’ve written elsewhere, it has solid laws regulating the circulation of petitions.
To be sure, reforms could be made to the state’s s initiative process. First, California does not make signatures submitted on initiative and popular referendum petitions, which could reduce fraud in the signature gathering process, as the Supreme Court of the United States recognized in its 2010 decision, Doe v. Reed. Second, is the only state that permits the process where the legislature may neither amend nor repeal an initiative statute. Both of these areas should be addressed by the state legislature in the coming years.
The process ofdirect democracy, as practiced in California over the past century, certainly has exhibited considerable vulnerabilities. There’s room for improving the system. But over the years, it also has served as a “gun behind the door,” as Woodrow Wilson–a critic of direct democracy–reluctantly referred to the initiative process. It has kept the state legislature in check, given citizens a voice, and helped to engage the electorate and affect candidate campaigns. No political system is perfect, including California’s hybrid democracy, but it has lasted a century and it will no doubt continue to endure for years to come.