Has Direct Democracy Outlived Its Usefulness?

California fiddles with long-established initiatives and referenda.


SACRAMENTO — A key rule for political reform is that it should be as neutral as possible. Think of it in terms of a football game. It may be wise to add a penalty to, say, better protect quarterbacks, but such a change should not be done to help a particular team with a shoddy front line. The rules should be adjusted only if it's better for the game.

Californians need to keep that in mind as they face renewed efforts to revamp the state's 102-year-old experiment in direct democracy — the initiative, referendum and recall. Gov. Hiram Johnson and the Progressives ushered in these far-reaching reforms to check the power of corrupt political machines and corporate interests. Progressives had deep faith in the ability of average citizens to vote for the "public interest."

The initiative process has been subject to the same sleaziness and self-interest common to all political endeavors, which sparks regular calls for reform. Many initiatives are pushed by special interests or serve mainly to enrich insiders. Others are sold to the public in wildly dishonest ways.

A few politicians and academics would love to see this system vastly restricted. That approach is popular among some modern progressives who now have control over the Legislature and see direct democracy as a threat. Conservatives have traditionally been leery of "majoritarianism," but now rely on direct democracy to bypass liberal politicians.

"It's the last tool that we have on our side," said Jon Coupal, president of the conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which was formed to protect the tax limitations secured by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.

The public has mixed feelings. The Public Policy Institute of California reports that its "public opinion polls find broad support for the initiative process as well as strong consensus that changes are needed." PPIC proposes steps that allow the Legislature some input with proposed initiatives; require more disclosure of funding sources; and "re-engage citizens" by, for instance, providing additional time to gather signatures if initiative backers use volunteers.

Phillip Ung, of liberal-oriented California Common Cause, said his group is working on bipartisan efforts to reform the process. The thrust: providing more information about specific initiatives to voters, reducing the role of money in the process, and taking the attorney general — who has "cooked some of the titles and summaries," he said — out of the process. That sounds like an approach that should appeal to true reformers of any political stripe.

"Initiatives have a salubrious effect," said Steve Frates, of Pepperdine University's Davenport Institute. They can be crude, emotional and highly flawed, but he argues that politicians temper some of their worst instincts because they know that the voters have this power.

If we were starting over, we shouldn't have direct democracy, argues political science professor Edward Erler of Cal State-San Bernardino. "It makes it too easy for (legislators) to duck their responsibility," he told me. But even this critic is opposed to radical changes to the system. The public has "pretty good instincts" when the debate is fair and honest.

Unfortunately, some recent initiative reforms have been more about self-interest — about rigging the football game, if you will — than about helping the public have a more fair and informed political debate. The best example was the successful effort by the state's Democrats to move initiatives to general elections to stop an anti-union measure, explained Joe Mathews in a 2012 column. A lack of serious initiative reform by good-government groups, he added, has created a vacuum that the opportunists have filled.

Californians will need to pay close attention to any proposals. There's a good argument for reform, but the wrong reforms could leave voters, as Hiram Johnson put it, without "the means by which they can protect themselves."