A century ago, on October 10, 1911, Californians adopted a legislative referendum that created the initiative (and referendum) in California. Critics today bemoan the fact that direct legislation in California is big business. Special interests have used the process to pass countless propositions. In recent years, Californians have approved statewide citizen-initiated ballot measures reducing property taxes, giving citizens the right to vote on local taxes, banning social services for illegal immigrants and gay marriage, ending affirmative action and bilingual education programs in the public schools, increasing the tobacco surtax for state and county childhood education and health programs, permitting gaming on Indian reservations, allowing the prescription of medical marijuana, bolstering the minimum wage, limiting the term limits of government officials, and restricting campaign contributions. Of the 24 states that permit the initiative, California had the second most initiatives on the ballot over the past hundred years, trailing only Oregon.
The initiative – the process whereby people collect a specified number of valid signatures to place either a statutory measure or constitutional amendment on the ballot for fellow voters to adopt or reject – has garnered its share of critics over the years. In condemning the current practice, many journalists claim that the initiative today is distinct from that of yesteryear, as special interests today are undermining the once-populist tool of citizen lawmaking. Lamenting the loss of purity of these once populist tools, journalist Charles Mahtesian has lambasted California’s initiative as a “grassroots charade” and beloved Washington Post pundit David Broder once wrote that the initiative “threatens to challenge or even subvert the American system of government.” Rather than citizen groups utilizing the initiative process, critics maintain that narrow economic interests now dominate the process, as corporations pay signature gathering firms thousands of dollars to circulate petitions and spend millions of dollars on thirty-second TV spots. Former Sacramento Bee editorial page editor Peter Schrag claimed more than a decade ago that the “the people’s remedy” has been ironically co-opted by the “‘the interests’ – the insurance industry, the tobacco companies, the trial lawyers, public employee unions.” Schrag contended that special interests in California “are themselves running and/or bankrolling ballot measures to advance their economic agendas.” Finally, in her portrait of California’s 1996 anti-Affirmative Action initiative, Proposition 209, journalist Linda Chavez painted a grim picture of direct legislation. “The initiative process was first envisioned as a populist tool,” Chavez wrote, although today “anyone with a million dollars to pay for the signatures necessary to put an initiative on the ballot can attempt to enact laws or change a state constitution.”
Full Article: A Century of Direct Democracy in California « electionsmith.