Election Day 2012

UC Davis students line up to cast ballots in November 2012 election. Changes in California's 102-year-old initiative process may one day be put to voters. (Autumn Payne / Sacramento Bee / November 6, 2013)

When ticked-off Californians voted by a landslide in 1911 to take political power into their own hands and away from special interests and a Legislature in their thrall, the L.A. Times expressed its disgust with headlines about “freak laws.”

The initiative, referendum and recall have been voters’ tools ever since.

But a century on, have those means to bypass special interests become just another power tool of those interests?

It’s a question worth considering for a solution worth pursuing. And three men, each representing a different branch of California government — men whose public lives have been directly affected by those 1911 reforms — deliberated last week at a panel organized by the Public Policy Institute of California, which just published its new analysis, “Reforming California’s Initiative Process.”

Former Gov. Gray Davis became a “former” because of those reforms, when he was recalled from office 11 months after he had been reelected.

Ron George, who just retired as California’s Supreme Court chief justice, sat in judgment on the constitutionality of some of those “sometimes dueling or conflicting” initiatives that voters pass, and with his colleagues spent long hours trying to figure out voters’ intent in one measure or another.

And Willie Brown was longtime speaker of the Assembly before a term-limits initiative sent him back to San Francisco. With term limits, he said vividly, “the voters screwed themselves royally … term limits eliminated a ton of talent.”

In any case, Brown dislikes the entire initiative process. When I asked whether, in all of his decades in California, he had ever voted for a single one, he got the event’s biggest laugh when he said ringingly, “Never!”

But as Davis philosophically pointed out, the initiative is a fact of California life — “the rules of the road,” and if policymakers don’t like voters’ wielding so much authority, “then you should find another line of work.”

The initiative has become a ready-made formula for logjams and contradictions. Voters pass measures that don’t even explain, much less provide, how they’ll be paid for. One initiative may contravene the provisions of an earlier one. And the process of gathering signatures to qualify something for the ballot can depend on how much you can raise to pay signature-gatherers, not how much voters like the proposal.

The initiative means that a simple majority of voters can require a two-thirds vote of legislators to act — which Brown called “a dumb thing.” Voters can so easily amend California’s Constitution (which is so hard to un-amend) that it now has about 500 amendments, almost as many as India’s, and almost 20 times more than the U.S. Constitution.

Some of the ideas floated at the PPIC panel:

  • “Sunsetting” initiatives, so that they automatically expire after a certain number of years; if voters like them, they can re-up.
  • Some kind of constitutional review of initiatives before they appear on the ballot. In one four-decade period, almost a third of ballot measures approved by voters were later voided in part or in total because of some unconstitutional provision. George, who’s just published “Chief,” an oral history of his time on the bench, suggested that some kind of review process could, with the agreement of the initiative’s sponsors, fix a proposed initiative before an election, “because it’s in their interest to avoid the costly exercise of going through [an election] and then having courts have to invalidate it.”
  • Better, simpler ballot pamphlet language. Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation has said that the state’s pre-election pamphlet explaining the initiatives gives voters “more non-fiction … in the two weeks leading up to an election than the typical person reads in an entire year.”
  • Any measure requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to accomplishing anything should also require a two-thirds voter approval, not just a majority.
  • Requiring initiative sponsors to pay signature-gatherers an hourly wage, rather than paying by the signature, and allowing more time to collect the signatures to put an initiative on the ballot.
  • Clearer disclosure in advertising of who’s supporting a ballot measure and who’s against it, much like the current “I’m candidate xx, and I approved this message” requirement.

Any one of these ideas would require voter support to happen. So for me, the big question is persuasion.

How do you get voters to understand that these changes wouldn’t necessarily mean they’re losing power at the ballot box — that’s a nonstarter — but making themselves more powerful by making the process faster and more effective?

All that voting power can be musclebound and useless if it’s contradictory and counterproductive, like voting for measures without specifying a clear way of paying for them (such as three-strikes), or feel-good voting for measures like Proposition 98, because funding schools is a good idea. But without more specific and clear information, voters may be doing so without being clued in that ballot-box budgeting can stymie every other part of the state budget.

The PPIC’s president, Mark Baldassare, pointed out the divide in opinion: Political insiders think the initiative process is broken, but voters like it, and many of them “believe their fellow voters are better at making decisions than the governor and the Legislature.”

Personally, I think the Dunning-Kruger effect shows up at the ballot box sometimes, an electorate over-convinced of its own wisdom.

But the initiative is useful, it is popular, and it is going to take some brains to convince voters that it’s in their interest to reform the 102-year-old process.

Good ol’ Aesop had a fable for every moral, and in the case of the initiative, voters are like Aesop’s little boy reaching into a jar of yummy nuts. He gets a big ol’ handful, but his fist is so full, he can’t get it out of the jar. If he’s going to get to eat any of the nuts at all, he’s got to let some of them go.

Same thing with the initiatives: Approving some of the ideas listed above can make their initiative votes more potent, not less.

Now, try getting that on a bumper sticker.

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Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes