Experts Weigh in on Initiative Reform in California

A panel of direct democracy experts shared their ideas for reforming the California initiative process in San Francisco yesterday. The event, titled, “How Do We Put People Back in the Initiative Process?” was sponsored by Zócalo Public Square and the New America Foundation and took place in a small, packed setting at Fort Mason Center. Reform ideas covered a wide spectrum, but the esteemed panel overwhelmingly agreed on the paramount objectives of reform, rooted in trust of the citizenry: 1) the need to get more people involved in the initiative process; and 2) the need to make an abundance of accurate, comprehensive information readily accessible and understandable to every voter.

Moderator Joe Mathews, co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, opened the evening by reminding the audience that when Californians voted the direct democracy tools into law in 1911, the initiative faced almost no controversy. In keeping with the premise that, at least on its surface, initiative is popular among Californians, Mathews set the stage by establishing that the discussion’s approach would be from a “mend it, not end it” perspective.

The first guest, Kim Alexander, President and Founder of the California Voter Foundation, made her number one goal clear: enhanced disclosure of top donors both for and against initiatives. Alexander believes this information should be plainly visible on petitions being circulated, in pamphlets sent to voters’ homes, available upon request in polling places, and easy to find online for absentee voters and the public at large. While currently this information is “available” on the Secretary of State’s website, she stressed that in reality, to find it is such a herculean task as to render it effectively unavailable. These critical disclosures ought rather to be front and center. While these proposals do not face broad opposition, she noted that the ebb and flow of campaign cycles tend to wane people’s enthusiasm, so they never get accomplished.

Next to speak was Paul Jacob, President of the Citizens in Charge Foundation, an organization which advocates for the full ability of the people to govern themselves. Pointing out that the vast majority of laws and constitutional amendments in California were not passed via the initiative process but rather by the legislature, Jacob explained that his organization, in a recent assessment, gave California a B+ for its direct democracy (though not an A, as Mathews mistakenly stated). Jacobs noted that certain reforms, such as lengthening the signature gathering period from five to a minimum of nine months and lowering the number of required signatures, might bring California to a straight A. Acknowledging that these changes would likely result in many more initiatives, Jacob asserted that the people have a right to vote on as many initiatives as they demonstrate that they want.

Bruno Kaufmann, former Director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute of Europe, brought an international perspective to the discussion. Kaufmann described California’s system as “a hammer not a screwdriver” due to its brutality and inflexibility. He focused on the potential (some would say inevitable) future of online petitions, which, in addition to making debates over paid signature gatherers moot, will help expand participation in the early stage of the initiative process to a much wider audience. Kaufmann also noted that in Switzerland, for example, when an initiative gets the required number of signatures, it first becomes a “proposal.” The proposal is then submitted to lawmakers, who have the opportunity to respond to it with their own bill, a counter-bill or a compromise. The proposal’s sponsors maintain the right to withdraw, and any counter-proposals or compromises will be settled by the voters in an election.

Last up was James Fowler, a Professor at UC San Diego and co-author of the recent award-winning book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks. Fowler, an expert on the intersection of the genome and the way people make decisions, began by discussing the phenomenon of voter fatigue, pointing to experiments that show that when people face too many choices, they walk away. He suggested reforms designed to make voting a less lonely process. By getting together, such as through online social networks (with the goal of this contact leading to an in-person get-together), a more social approach to the initiative process could ease the burden of decision-making. Perhaps more importantly, by connecting with the people around us, he argued that far more people would become energized and knowledgeable about the issues.

After each guest had his or her say, Mathews’ “lightening round” exposed a few areas in which nearly everyone agreed. For example, Kaufmann highlighted the Swiss saying, “Think like a philosopher, write like a farmer.” This comment unveiled wide consensus that when people get together and talk about the propositions up for vote, the group can together identify the specific issues that people care about, and make better-informed choices based upon a variety of perspectives. A great way that everyone can achieve this is by hosting, or attending, a Voter House Party. Alexander, a big fan of this idea, said that attending a Voter House Party is like having everyone else “do your homework for you.”

The panel also collectively dismissed the idea of limiting the subject matter of initiatives on the basis that the legislature has no such restriction. Jacobs, using the contentious Proposition 8 as an example, stated that notwithstanding that there are some issues upon which the majority has no right to have a say, such as with regard to the civil rights of a minority, there should be no limits on the subject matter of initiatives. If and when, as with Prop. 8, the initiative process oversteps its bounds by infringing basic liberties, Jacob argued it is up to the courts to overturn the new law. This was met with agreement by all except Alexander, who suggested that it would also be useful to illuminate possible constitutional violations before people vote for something which will likely be overturned.

Audience questions brought to light more consensuses. The experts concurred that greater disclosure about initiative campaign spending is essential. Under the premise that the more information about initiatives available to people the better, they also lamented the relatively small amount of attention paid to initiative campaigns by the media. The panel also denounced the process as too fast. Remedies to slow it down spanned from keeping the polls open for several days (including weekends) to having separate elections for separate issues, as is frequently practiced in Europe.

As the Centennial of the implementation of initiative, referendum, and recall by voters under Governor Hiram Johnson approaches on October 10, 2011 is an appropriate time for reflection by any measure. It behooves one to recall the original intent of direct democracy – to wrest control of state politics from the special interests which controlled the legislature (namely, the Southern Pacific Railroad) and return the power to govern to the people. We have all of late borne witness to the irony of that design. The panel at Fort Mason Center Wednesday evening proposed many reforms with that same objective of empowering the citizens. Time only will tell which, if any, reforms come into fruition, and whether if, in standing the test of time, they will ring true to their original intent.

Natalya DeRobertis-Theye

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