Last week our state's lower legislative house rejected a bill that would have made it harder to qualify and approve of initiatives that change California's constitution. Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat from Los Angeles, sponsored the bill that would have made an enormous amount of sense. Let's hope it comes back again, successfully passes both legislative houses, and is signed by the Governor. Here's why.
It is distressingly easy to amend our state constitution through a disturbingly broken process -- the ballot initiative process. A constitution should be a basic governing document. It should be difficult to alter it. It should be altered only after an open, deep, and thorough debate. Ours is not; it has been amended well over 500 times. It is one of the most bloated constitutions in modern history. Compare our state constitution, in existence for 133 years, to our federal constitution, in existence for 223 years: It has been amended only 27 times.
The ballot initiative process simply makes it far too easy to propose, qualify, and pass citizen-initiated laws. Gatto's bill would have required more voter signatures to qualify initiatives. Further, his proposal would have required that constitutional amendments pass by a vote of 55 percent of voters taking part in the election in which the measure appeared on the ballot.
Gatto's proposal was quite rationale. Constitutional amendments should not pass by a simple majority of those who show up to the polls in any given election.
We live in a representative democracy. The ballot initiative process was designed as a safety valve for citizens when the legislative process failed to function properly. Now, because the initiative process is largely dominated by the same special interests we created the process to guard against, both the legislative and initiative processes are in need of serious reform.
Gatto's proposal would have been a step in the right direction.
Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.