Friday, October 7, 2011

"This Doggone Direct Democracy: Would California Be Better Off Without Ballot Initiatives?"

Jessica Levinson has a post on Zocalo Public Square here.

No—but California’s system is horribly flawed

In 1911, Governor Hiram Johnson enacted a series of reforms, including direct democracy, to increase the clout of the citizens across the state. At the time, the Southern Pacific Railroad possessed a stranglehold over our lawmakers. While their names are different—Amazon, Mercury Insurance, and PG&E instead of Southern Pacific Railroad—the sad irony of direct democracy is that it is now controlled by the very interests that it was designed to guard against.
What does one need to force citizens of the Golden State to vote on a pet project? In a word: money. While qualifying a measure for the ballot hardly guarantees the ultimate success of that measure, it does mean that Californians will be required to invest time and resources on a ballot measure, no matter how ludicrous the idea behind the measure is.
Ballot measures present voters with a binary choice; they can either vote “yes” or “no.” This is problematic for numerous reasons. To use but one example, when voters weigh in on budgetary issues they are asked merely, “Do you want this program or service?” or “Do you want lower fees or taxes?” The rational voter will say “yes” to both questions.
However, voters are not asked to reflect on the consequences of their answers. The question should be, “Do you want this program if it means we need to raise taxes or less money can be used for X?” or “Do you want lower taxes if it means less money will be available for Y?” Voters make choices with only part of the pertinent information, and then get irritated with their elected officials when those lawmakers have a difficult time implementing the will of the voters.
In sum, direct democracy presents our state with a number of challenges. The processes created a century ago to give power to the people, and to reduce the influence of special interests over our lawmakers, have now been hijacked by those very interests. Direct democracy also promotes a cycle of discontent by presenting voters with artificially isolated decisions.
Jessica Levinson is a visiting associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.

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