Initiative and Referendum is Not Working

‘Are you registered to vote?’ the young man asks me.

He’s one of the scores of canvassers that inundates the Bay Area, setting up shop on street corners, outside grocery stores, at farmers’ markets, anywhere they think they can find unwitting victims. Some like to go the progressive angle, seeking out people whom they think will be politically conscious and amenable to hearing them out. Others just go for bulk signature collection, choosing the most crowded areas possible in order to bring signatures back to the office by sheer force of will; pester enough people, and some percentage will have to give in and sign your petition.

‘Not in this county,’ I always reply, which is true — though I am a part time Bay Area resident, my primary residence is in Mendocino County and I vote there. This is also, usually, enough to dissuade the canvasser from harassing me, because many petitions are local and a signature from someone who isn’t a local voter could invalidate the whole page. But sometimes I get trailed down the street because it’s a state matter, and the canvasser sees an opportunity because I bothered to respond — my attempt at being polite and dismissive has failed.

California, like some other states, has an initiative and referendum system, theoretically part of the larger system of checks and balances that stretches across the state’s government. We directly elect a governor and state house, responsible for appointing officials and making laws, and they intertwine with the judiciary to create a network of legislation and caselaw that is intended to provide political guidance for the state. But if were not happy with the shape of things, we can take matters directly to the state with a petition: Get enough signatures, and you can force the state’s hand, with a proposition on the state or local ballot asking people to vote directly on a matter of interest.

One of the more interesting and internationally famous examples was the recall, in which we removed Gray Davis in 2003 for being a general waste of time and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, perhaps not the best choice for Governor, but certainly a colourful one. Proposition 8, in 2008, was another notorious example, in which the state collectively voted to ban marriage equality (and numerous prominent members of the gay movement made racist and horrible statements suggesting that the election of a Black President was somehow linked to this).

On the surface, initiative and referendum is a really cool system, especially for a country where individuals often feel so disenfranchised. Unhappy with something that’s happening? You have the power to change it, if you can muster enough people who share your point of view. On the ground, though, the system is failing, and the state needs to seriously reconsider whether it wants to continue allowing Californians to bring petitions to the ballot and force votes on them instead of encouraging people to seek alternative methods of political change.

Why isn’t it working? As Prop 8 illustrated, the state is putting civil rights issues and similar matters to the ballot. These issues should never be put to the vote, because in a society where discrimination and bigotry exist, such measures are often going to come down on the side of wrong. Furthermore, huge amounts of money are involved in lobbying for given propositions, which gives rather a lie to the idea that individual constituents can make a difference. That only holds true for those with deep pockets who can pay their way into power and desired outcomes.

Those canvassers are paid by the signature, and they’re not afraid to resort to extremely dirty tactics to get signatures. It’s commonplace for them to falsify signatures and collect illegal signatures, and to outright lie to people about what they are signing. When the petition for the Six Californias ballot measure was brought to Sacramento, for example, the sponsoring organization was accused of voter fraud because it was telling voters that they needed to sign the petition to prevent the state from being split apart. These kinds of tactics are in extremely common use, yet many people sign petitions without looking and don’t educate themselves about what they’re signing, including well-meaning individuals who would be shocked and upset by what they mistakenly endorsed.

Prop 8 provides another example of the complex problems with these initiatives: It was deliberately worded in a misleading and confusing way that led people to believe that a ‘yes’ vote was a ‘yes’ for marriage equality, when in fact, the opposite was true. An unknown number of voters proudly voted yes, thinking they were ushering California into a more progressive era, when in fact they were doing just the opposite. While the voter guide and other documentation clearly goes over the consequences of different votes, many voters don’t read this documentation, don’t read it closely, or are, again, misled by advertising campaigns with exploit confusing ballot language.

This is also a system in which legislators dodge responsibility for complicated decisions by kicking them to the vote, where citizens are expected to make decisions about subjects like the budget without the benefit of experience, briefs from policy experts, and other information that could help them make informed decisions. When the government is forced to make tough choices and it wants to avoid polarising voters for fear of risking elections, it responds by making voters make these decisions, so voters have only themselves to blame — which is a disgusting way of approaching the problem.

While the core premise behind initiative and referendum is sound, and even admirable, it’s time for the state to think about some more sensible alternatives that allow voters to have an actual voice without condemning the state to chaos.

Image: A big NO on Proposition 8, Justin Garland, Flickr.