Fixing Direct Democracy Requires Fixing the California Government
California leaders are discussing changes to our state’s troubled direct democracy. But none of the proposals is bold enough to get to the heart of what is wrong with our system of initiatives, referendums and recalls.
Our direct democracy exists in its own strange world, apart from the rest of the California government. When we put measures on the ballot and approve them, those voter-approved laws and constitutional amendments do not have to fit into existing laws or practices.
Ballot initiatives can spend money or change taxes in ways that violate existing budgets. Ballot initiatives can establish restrictions on democratic rule – such as new supermajorities – and impose complex formulas on government programs. Once ballot initiatives are approved by voters, they cannot be changed or corrected by lawmakers – unless the original text of the initiative allows it.
Essentially, our direct democracy designed to screw everything up. This screw-up, in turn, breeds frustration with the government — causing Californians to want to table more initiatives, which further screw-up the government.
Now, after Governor Gavin Newsom’s failed recall attempt, California has entered one of those rare times when proposals are made to reform our direct democracy, particularly recall. But none will end the cycle of frustration. Because none of them will integrate direct democracy with the rest of the government.
Still, it’s good news that California movers, some of whom were involved in a thoughtful 2014 reform that created a bit more flexibility in the ballot initiative process, are figuring out how to inject more deliberation into our democracy. direct.
Some of the most interesting ideas involve incorporating citizens’ assemblies – random representative groups of ordinary citizens – into the process. These bodies could create voter-friendly titles and official summaries of ballot measures that are easier for voters to understand. They could even decide which initiatives should be on the ballot.
Such reforms could eventually create space for more changes in the process, but they are still too small – as they only focus on changing direct democracy. True integration would also mean changing the rest of California’s dysfunctional and complicated government.
The easiest way to get there is unfortunately a long political plan: a convention to create California’s first new constitution since 1879. But there are intermediate improvements we could make now.
The easiest way would be to rethink our electoral calendar. Let’s eliminate the initiatives of the too long November ballots, full of candidate races. We could then give direct democracy a new timetable that fits the working timetable of the state government. At least three days a year should be devoted to votes on state ballot measures – one during the spring budget season (so that tax and spending initiatives can be incorporated into the budget), and the others in September (at the end of the state legislative session) and December (when lawmakers draft new laws for the following year).
Such a timeline should be bolstered by requirements that ballot initiatives must respect existing budgets (if they add spending or cut taxes, the measures must identify sources of revenue to balance things out) and be subject to change by legislators, like other laws. At the same time, we should make it easier for ordinary Californians to correct lawmakers’ mistakes — perhaps with a citizens’ assembly that can review and change legislation before it takes effect.
And Californians, when voting on measures, must learn to think more like legislators. Some wealthy person now claiming to be “saving democracy” should be giving us all free training on how to read a budget and bill, including initiatives.
Since Californians insist on the power to act as lawmakers, we need to know how the laws work.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.