Ballot Propositions: Sometimes Democracy is Hard to Love

I’ve lived in several states in the last few decades and each one brings its own learning curve. When I moved to California in 1988 there were several ballot propositions dedicated to auto insurance reform (as an aside, most of them were drawn up by auto insurance companies to confuse the voters; it didn’t work). I have to admit I was a little taken aback that my ballot contained what looked like ordinary legislation that the state government should have taken care of. I wrongly assumed these propositions were legislation that the legislature didn’t want to act on, and they punted it to us.

I was wrong. I got this information from the state web page. In a special election in 1911 voters approved a way to create legislation (or amend the state constitution) by popular vote, bypassing the governor and state legislature. I’ve boiled down the process:

  1. Write up the legislation you want and submit it to the Attorney General
  2. Determine if it will affect the state budget
  3. Write up the petition and get signatures. You need to obtain signatures equal to 5% of the number who voted for governor in the last election. All signatures must be registered voters.
  4. After the signatures are checked and verified, your initiative is on the ballot. If it gets 50% of the vote (55% in some cases), it becomes law.

We’ve learned over the last 101 years just how easy it is to pass legislation. You need a smart person to write the initiative, and lots of money. Any Californian will tell you that we know it’s election season because everytime we leave a grocery store there is someone there with multiple petitions and a sign that says something like: “Help people get what they need.” The person is being paid, often $1.00 per signature, and usually has no idea what the initiatives actually mean. Once it’s on the ballot you need to spend millions (or least more than your opponent) convincing voters that your initiative is the only thing keeping us from doom and that your opponent wants to destroy all you hold dear.

This process has been taken over by deep pocket special interests. I’ve completely made this up as an illustration, but imagine this:

It’s 1900 and you make buggy whips for carriages. You’ve made a good fortune for yourself and you are touch with others who are equally successful. You hear that there is a guy in your state who is working on an invention called a “horseless carriage.” It sounds crazy, but he’s working on an internal combustion engine that will propel the carriage by burning gasoline instead of being pulled by horses. You recognize that if you remove horses from the equation you also remove buggy whips and your way of life is going to end. You want to ban these horseless carriages but you know you can’t write a ballot initiative that bans them because it’s bad for your business; that won’t pass. In a moment of inspiration you decide that since gasoline is flammable, it must be unsafe. You write an initiative that proposes to ban large containers of gasoline (5 gallons or more) on wheeled vehicles because they are “explosions waiting to happen.” Together with other buggy whip manufacturers you start a campaign called “Citizens for Public Safety” that warns of the dangers of exploding gasoline containers. Ordinary voters, who may not know who you are, vote for your initiative out of fear of firestorms in the street.

Sound crazy? Maybe, but I’m glad I’m not driving a horse powered carriage.

2 thoughts on “Ballot Propositions: Sometimes Democracy is Hard to Love

  1. Good question Chip. I guess I want to eliminate these ballot initiatives. I have a memory that ballot initiatives were created because the Southern Pacific Railroad had undo influence on the state legislature in the early 1900s. Now, a century later, rich groups have co-opted the initiative process. Maybe it’s time to hit the reset button and go back to letting the legislature make legislation.

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