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Ballot Initiatives Have Harmed California

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A signature gatherer tries to put a local proposition on the 2008 San Francisco ballot (it failed) | Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr/Creative Commons License

When people pose questions like, "Do you want to save our democracy? Our environment? Our schools?" I either answer "no" or keep walking. It is signature gathering time in California, and most of us have experienced that awkward moment when we are approached by an energetic, and often aggressive, petition gatherer. Inevitably the signature gatherer poses the type of question that would seem unimaginable to answer in the negative. And yet, I do, if I respond at all. Why?

The more I think about and study the initiative process, the more I feel committed to the idea that I will not sign petitions for ballot measures. I say this will full awareness of the fact that I am and have been a strong proponent of the independent redistricting commission, which was created by a ballot initiative. I have struggled with the idea that perhaps initiatives should only affect governmental processes such as redistricting, term limits and campaign finance laws. The problem with that approach has played out thanks to our term limit law.

So do not get me wrong, I think at least a portion of these proposed ballot initiatives would support worthwhile ideas or causes, I just do not think they should be made into the law through the initiative process. (The problem, of course, is that some of these ideas may never be enacted via the legislative process as this is a representative democracy, and frankly, that is what happens). In addition, many -- far too many -- of these proposed ballot initiatives sound like great ideas until one actually reads the text of the proposed law.

Ballot initiatives have harmed California. The process designed to guard against special interests, and specifically their influence over legislators, has now been turned on its head and is all but controlled by those interests. In order to qualify an initiative for the ballot one needs money, not a good idea.

In California ballot initiatives can affect nearly any area of the government, including the budget. Ballot initiatives often ask voters if they want more services. Voters rationally answer yes, but they make their decision in isolation, without a comprehensive view of how those services will be paid for. Similarly ballot initiatives may ask voters if they want lower taxes or fees. Again voters may rationally answer yes. But again the decision is made in isolation, often without the benefit of knowing which programs and services will be cut as a result of those lower taxes. Our lawmakers are left trying to create the services and cut the revenues.

This is not to say that California would be a Utopian state without the ballot initiative process. There are, no doubt, serious problems with our legislative process, but the ballot initiative process has only exacerbated those problems.

This year, as in years past, initiative proponents are actively seeking signatures. More than a dozen will likely qualify for the ballot. I ask shoppers, walkers and voters to think twice before putting their John or Jane Hancock on one of these petitions.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

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