How California's Ballot Measure Process Got So Kooky

An anti-Proposition 8 protest in Sacramento in 2008, shortly after voters approved itEXPAND
An anti-Proposition 8 protest in Sacramento in 2008, shortly after voters approved it

It's election season in California, and that means one thing: last-minute cramming. Voters are frantically trying to study 17 statewide ballot measures; poring over the pros and cons of school construction bonds and marijuana legalization; and attempting to understand just what the hell it means to divert hospital fee revenue to Medi-Cal. Why the hell can't politicians just figure this shit out? Isn't that what we pay them for?

"There’s nothing like it in the rest of the country – or the world," says Joe Mathews, who's co-president of the Global Forum on Direct Democracy and a columnist at Zócalo Public Square. "It’s the most expensive system in the world, and it’s the most inflexible system in the world."

That is, California's special brand of direct democracy is special in that once voters pass a ballot initiative, it can't be amended by politicians; it can only be changed or overturned by another initiative (or, in some cases, the Supreme Court).

"People think I’m joking when I explain how California works," Mathews says.

California was not the first state in the union to allow voters themselves to propose and vote on laws. In fact, it was the 10th. But the weight we gave the system was truly unique, and largely a function of its time – the progressive era in California. 

Devotees of National Public Radio will recognize the name John Randolph Haynes as one half of the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation. Haynes was an odd character, a doctor who moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles for his health in 1887 and helped found the Christian Socialist Economic League of Los Angeles. Kevin Starr, in his book Inventing the Dream: California Though the Progressive Era, writes:

This aristocratic, outgoing physician, a lover of wine and food and Oriental rugs, did not let his Socialist beliefs stand in the way of accumulating a fortune in real estate, banking, and insurance, or of carrying on a prosperous surgical practice. The initial appearance of the Christian Socialist Economic League of Los Angeles at a dinner round table was totally appropriate, for Dr. Haynes loved to advance his ideas in the setting of his sumptuous home, rich and warm with family antiques and paintings, after a first-rate meal prepared by the family chef, accompanied by judicious selections from Dr. Haynes's excellent wine cellar. 

Among Haynes' ideas were the initiative, the referendum and the recall – "The remedy for the evils of democracy is more democracy," he liked to say. As Starr writes:

If voters could in an industrial democracy put their own legislation on the ballot, Dr. Haynes believed, or vote yea or nay on controversial measures, or recall corrupt officials, the resulting democratic atmosphere would yield naturally to Socialism. 

(Haynes was also a "staunch booster of eugenics," according to the book John Randolph Haynes: California Progressive, "which aimed to improve the human race by selective breeding and other means." Haynes would come to believe in the "sterilizing of the unfit" and the forced sterilization of "abnormal individuals.")

Haynes helped establish direct democracy in Los Angeles, before turning his attention to reforming the state government. At the time, Sacramento was largely under the yolk of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In 1907, Haynes helped found the Lincoln–Roosevelt League, along with a group of lawyers, businessmen and journalists. The group would dedicate itself to a number of causes, including Haynes's hobby horses – the direct primary, initiative, referendum and recall – but also, according to Starr, "the regulation of public utilities; the conservation of forests; the outlawing of child labor, prostitution, and gambling; hospital and prison reform; women's suffrage and a minimum-wage law for working women; the direct election of United States senators; the systemization of public finance; charter reform; public transportation."

Above all, the league was devoted to "the constructive destruction of the Southern Pacific machine."

Out of this band of crusaders came Hiram Johnson, the son of a Republican legislator and a lawyer who became famous for successfully prosecuting the mayor of San Francisco, "Handsome Gene" Schmitz, after the original prosecutor, Francis J. Heney, was gunned down in open court.

Johnson ran for governor of California in 1910 on the Lincoln-Roosevelt League platform of hyper-direct democracy. He won, and the next year, Proposition 7, Johnson's statewide plank of initiative, referendum and recall, went before voters. An opponent of the measure, state Sen. Leroy Wright, called the proposal "so radical as to be almost revolutionary in its character. Its tendency is to change the republican form of our government and head it toward democracy, and history teaches that democracies have universally ended in turbulence and disaster."

Proposition 7 passed overwhelmingly, with more than three-quarters of the electorate's support. The Los Angeles Times described the vote as having "thrust from power the Captains of Greed."

In 1914, the first election to have initiatives, there were 48 (!) measures on the ballot. The four dozen propositions covered everything from alcohol prohibition (which failed), the abolition of a poll tax (passed), the eight-hour work day (failed), the six-day work week (failed), a minimum wage for women and minors (passed) and a ban on prize-fighting (passed). 

Since then, Californians have passed judgment on a cavalcade of far-reaching laws, including:

Proposition 18 in 1958 would have prohibited collective bargaining and banned unions. Not only did voters reject the measure but a huge wave of pro-union and liberal support swept into office a Democratic majority and Gov. Pat Brown. 

• Proposition 15 in 1964, sponsored by movie theater owners, proposed a ban on cable TV, under the auspices that it was protecting "free television." Voters actually approved it, but the courts ruled it unconstitutional.

Proposition 13 in 1978, perhaps the most famous and influential of all California ballot measures, slashed property taxes, and froze property tax levels to the time of purchase. It also made it so that any future tax increase of any kind had to have two-thirds of voter support. Proposition 13 passed with nearly 65 percent support. According to a very good New York Times video, "Owners of real estate quickly saw their property tax bills slashed. But they, and millions of others, also found themselves burdened with assorted new fees and levies to compensate for lost state and local government revenues." 

The same year voters passed Proposition 13, they rejected Proposition 6, aka the Briggs initiative, which would have banned homosexuals from working in public schools. 

• Proposition 64 in 1986 would have added AIDS to the state's list of communicable diseases. Opponents (including a young Michael Weinstein, who himself is now a prominent sponsor of ballot measures) argued that it would have led to mass testing and even quarantining people with HIV or AIDS. Voters roundly rejected the measure by a 40-point margin. A similar measure in 1988 also was defeated. 

• Proposition 161 in 1992 would have legalized assisted suicide in California. It was rejected by about an 8-point margin.

• Proposition 8 in 2008, the state's infamous ban on same-sex marriage, was narrowly approved by voters the same year it elected the country's first African American president. Activists sued to overturn the law and the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2013, declared it unconstitutional. 

Unlike in other countries, there is no limit to what can be put on the ballot. And because of the size and wealth of the state, gathering signatures and running a campaign is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest of interests. 

This year, voters will decide such weighty issues as legal recreational marijuana, the death penalty and condoms in porn. With weeks to go, there has already been $450 million spent on the initiatives' campaigns – a new record

Special interests dominate spending on both sides, as do millionaires such as Tom Steyer and Charles Munger Jr. What began as a process to empower the people has now become yet another way for monied interests – including corporations, unions and nonprofits – to create their own laws. 

"It’s a colossal fuck-up," says Mathews. "We should fix it. But no one wants to hear it. The problem is the people with the most money and the most power like it. They have access to the process in a way that other people don’t."


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