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."

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60 responses to “Has Direct Democracy Outlived Its Usefulness?

  1. Has there been a thread on this?…..ks/281266/

    1. Democracy can’t get much more direct than that!

      1. In just a few years these things are going to be all over every urban ghetto neighborhood, and law abiding citizens in NYC, Chicago, LA, etc. will be even more defenseless than they already are.

    2. “Don’t freak out”

      Not a problem.

      1. I keep rereading the article looking for the part that’s supposed to frighten me, but no matter how hard I look it still just reads like an announcement that Christmas will happen every day this year.

    3. “People develop a technology that allows them to manufacture?themselves, in the privacy of their own homes?working guns.”

      What?? The technology of MELTING and SHAPING METAL? Who ever though such an advanced technological state could ever be reached by people IN THEIR OWN HOMES??!!

      My grandfather once speculated that early-nineteenth century technological wizardry would be rediscovered, but we always just dismissed the dreaming old fool . . .

      1. Whoah, they had laser sintering 3d printers that could craft shapes I could never hope to machine by hand?

        1. No. They had the ability to make guns. Themselves. By hand. That would fire repeatedly even.

          1. Oh I can do that part, I just know the quality of my craftsmanship isn’t the best and I didn’t want the hassle of owning a gun I’d made.

          2. No. They had the ability to make guns. Themselves. By hand. That would fire repeatedly even.

            Dear God.

            People with home machine shops and metric shit-tons of skill and years of experience can manufacture just about anything. These are not skills had by many now, and they weren’t skills had by many in the early-19th Century. If such skills had been had by many, gun manufacturers and smiths specializing in only that one very narrow field would not have existed. But, oh wow, look at history, they fucking did exist.

            Most people in the 19th Century got guns the same way we do now, they bought them.

            Desktop metal sintering/3D printing is revolutionary in that it allows anybody who can run a computer and printer to make things in their own home they would have had to buy from someone else otherwise. This doesn’t harkon back to the 19th Century in any way, unless you have literally no knowledge of history.

  2. Has Direct Democracy Outlived Its Usefulness?

    Democracy, The God That Failed by Hans Hermann Hoppe

    1. you ancap ol mex?

  3. Conservatives traditionally distrust democracy and majority rule, but that doesn’t preclude them from giving the majority a *veto* over the brain-farts of gerrymandered legislatures.

  4. The idiocy of direct democracy was proven in 415 BC when the Athenians decided to embark of disastrous military adventures.

    1. Chickenhawks!

    2. “Syracuse has weapons of mass destruction!”

      “To the trirremes!”

      1. The hilarious part – once all the hawks sailed off with the fleet, the doves put the lead hawk (Alcibiades) on trial, convicted him in absentia, and sent a message to the fleet to send him home for execution.

        Of course Alcibiades took off for Italy. The fleet turned into a disaster and was a complete loss – all hands killed, sold into slavery, or worked to death in Sicilian quarries.

        1. Wasn’t there more than one excursion to Sicily? I recall one that was at least partially successfull…or maybe I am thinking of one of the Punic Wars…

          1. Yes, they eventually got footholds, lost them, got them again, etc.

          2. I think the initial landing was successful and some reinforcements arrived. The Spartans started helping Syracuse, eventually the Athenians and allies lost the entire expedition both on land and sea.

    3. …and subsequently execute the most famous philosopher of the western world. But, of course they didn’t know he would be so famous.

  5. Many initiatives are pushed by special interests or serve mainly to enrich insiders. Others are sold to the public in wildly dishonest ways.


    When I first arrived to California, I noticed that there were these curious signs placed about everywhere, warning people about ambient chemicals that could cause cancer. I found out that the signs were placed there because of Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, which purports to protect California citizens from the ravages of cancer-causing chemicals. The result of such measure, considering that most of those chemicals are found just about everywhere you go in whatever minute concentrations, is that businesses had to buy and place all these signs, millions of them, pretty much defeating the purpose of the measure through information saturation. When I pointed this out at the place where I worked, the production manager told me that the measure had very good intentions behind it, which I didn’t doubt; I told him that I was only pointing out that most people will probably never get cancer from any of those chemicals and that the measure only served to make the sign makers richer.

    1. Blessed are the signmakers?

      1. “…for all shall inherit the business.”

        1. And upon them the Father shall shower Truncated Domes.

    2. I did a week vacation in California this year and was constantly rolling my eyes at all the restaurants with “this establishment serves food prepared with known carcinogens” sign.

    3. I always found it amusing when I would purchase a package of tobacco, and the warning said “This product is known in the state of California to cause cancer…” As if once you leave California it ceases to cause cancer.

      1. No, it’s just that no one but Californian’s are smart enough to know that it causes cancer. Therefore, it is beholden on them to place a label so that us common folk outsiders can be so enlightened.

    4. It’s sort of like “falling rocks” signs on roads. What are you supposed to do with that information?

      1. I guess you could avoid the road in the future.

      2. You get hit by a falling rock because you’re distracted reading the sign.

  6. No need for California pols to worry, the courts have already decided that the pols can veto the public initiatives by simply declining to defend their laws in court.

    1. There is that, too – “well, provisions A, B and D of the measure we liked, but C was burdensome, so we ignored it.”

    2. California did defend the law in district court. It declined to continue the defense on appeal which… isn’t new and happens all the freaking time.

      1. I don’t care what the law is, but letting politicians smply decide to nullify a law they don’t like but can’t get legislated away by deciding to not do their jobs is an abomination.

    3. Or in MA, the politicians can just pretend that the People didn’t vote to lower the income tax.

  7. Me I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Prop 13 was possible because of the ballot initiative process, and the inability to get rid of Prop 13 is a lot of what is turning lefties against it.

    On the other hand, once you’ve been voting in CA long enough, you notice that when a stupid, over-complicated and hopelessly corrupt and misrepresented measure comes up and people vote it down, it simply keeps coming up every election slightly re-phrased, re-packaged and re-titled until it finally passes.

    At that point, no one in the legislature needs to take responsibility for it – it was direct democracy that produced the shitty legislation and there are no politicians to punish for it.

    1. What is this magical world you live in where politicians are “punished”?

      1. I think I read it in a book somewhere.

  8. My favorite example of direct democracy in action was Florida’s Amendment 1 in 2008. Its only purpose was to remove from the state constitution an obsolete (but racist and embarrassing) provision authorizing the legislature to restrict the rights of certain Chinese immigrants from the early 1900s. There was no organized opposition, nor any rational reason to vote “no”, but it was still defeated because 52% of voters (a) thought it had something to do with allowing modern-day immigrants to own land, and (b) found it reasonable to vote against that.

    1. To be fair, a lot of Florida’s residents were alive when the original provision passed in the early 1900s.

      1. He doesn’t remember what those certain Chinese immigrants were like. But Hazel, Dorothy and Gerald remember. They remember all too well.

  9. In a word: yes.

    California’s legislate-by-referendum is largely responsible for crippling the state’s finances. You can always find 50%+1 for pretty much any idea having to do with taxing and spending and the voters have even LESS clue how to manage a government budget than the dimwits elected to the legislature.

    Whatever you may think of the individual policy goals of referenda, voting into place a 2/3rds requirement for any tax increase and then voting to implement all sorts of mandatory spending into the state constitution is a recipe for financial disaster. The major reason California couldn’t balance its books for years was because the legislature could only haggle over some ridiculously small portion of the budget, I think about 15%, with the rest safely ensconced from any sort of cuts in the constitution.

    1. In what you’re talking about it is not so much legislate-by-referendum that is a problem by itself – it is a problem when combined with mandatory spending and an inability to increase taxes.

      Getting rid of mandatory spending vs. getting rid of the inability to increase taxes is a knee-jerk partisan stalemate that is not likely to change, and I think the initiative process is tangential to that problem.

    2. Perhaps all legislation regarding both spending and taxing should require 2/3 approval. Hey, if 60% of citizens agree something is needed, I’m sure they can find a way to finance and carry it out privately.

      1. That is pretty much how it is, and that’s pretty much the idea behind it – if 67% have to get behind something, it should be pretty solid.

        The trouble is that it really enshrines the tendency of people to want government to pay for things but to not have to pay taxes. It makes it hard for the government to stop paying for things, and almost impossible to raise taxes.

        The practical result is that in CA we pay a lot of “fees” for government “services,” yet our government is still verging on bankrupt.

      2. But it’s not 2/3 of the people, it’s 2/3 of those who happened to vote.

        Self rule is a great thing but democracy–rule of the majority–is not so good. Which is one of the flaws in the philosophy of the Democratic party.

  10. I wonder if voters have approved contradictory referenda over the years.

    1. They generally have a clause declaring that where any conflict arises, the more recent statute prevails.

  11. Any direct democracy mechanisms should be limited to having only the power to repeal laws and regulations.

    1. And politicians. The Gray Davis recall was the most political fun I’ve probably ever had.

    2. Also a good idea for representative democracy mechanisms.

  12. If it were up to me, the initiative process would be revised into a nullification process. Voters would not be able to use it to enact new laws but could use it to overturn laws. This would allow the process to serve as a check against government without giving the majority a direct ability to impose affirmative obligations on others.

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  15. What if a plebiscite was needed to pass laws, but not to repeal them? and if laws could be repealed with just a plebiscite?

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