California lawmakers and city leaders are debating changes to our state’s direct democracy. But none of the proposed changes are 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 approve ballot initiatives, the laws and constitutional amendments we make do not have to accommodate existing institutions, agencies, laws, regulations or practices.
Ballot initiatives can spend money or change taxes in ways that violate existing budgets. Ballot initiatives can establish new restrictions on democratic rule – such as new supermajorities – and impose complex formulas on government programs. And once ballot initiatives are approved by voters, they cannot be changed or corrected by lawmakers — unless the original text of the initiative allows it.
Here’s a nice way to describe the problem: our direct democracy is not integrated with the rest of the system of government. The least sympathetic is: our direct democracy designed to screw everything up.
This mess, in turn, breeds frustration with the government — which, ironically, makes Californians want to table more initiatives, further screwing up the government.
Now, after Governor Gavin Newsom’s failed recall, 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.
But the good news is that there are many conversations among California movers, some of whom were involved in a thoughtful 2014 reform that created a bit more flexibility in the ballot initiative process, about how to ‘Infuse more public deliberation into our live democracy.
Some of their most interesting ideas involve incorporating citizens’ assemblies – random representative groups of ordinary citizens – into the process. Such bodies could serve as neutral parties helping to make our ballot initiatives easier to digest for the average voter. They could review the measures to give them official titles and summaries (currently the purview of the state attorney general), or even decide which initiatives should go on the ballot.
Such reforms would be new and could create space for further changes, 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 do that would be a convention to draft the first new state constitution since 1879. But that’s a politically drawn-out process. And there are intermediate improvements that we could make now.
The simplest improvement would be to rethink our electoral calendar. Let’s remove the initiatives and the referendums from the too long November ballots, full of candidate races that divide our attention. We could then give direct democracy a new timetable that fits the working timetable of the state government.
There should be at least three days each year devoted to votes on state ballot measures. One should come during the spring budget season, so that the people’s spending and tax decisions can be incorporated into the state budget. There is expected to be a second vote on ballot measures to enact new laws in September, as the legislative session ends and the governor decides whether or not to sign new laws. A third vote would take place in December, when lawmakers draft new laws for the following year.
Such a timeline should be bolstered by new rules that require ballot initiatives to stay within existing budgets (if they add more spending or cut taxes, the measures must identify other sources of revenue to balance things out) and be subject to modification and correction by legislators, like other statutes. At the same time, we should make it easier for ordinary Californians to correct lawmakers’ mistakes — perhaps with a citizens’ assembly that can change legislation before it goes into effect.
And Californians, when voting on measures, need to think of themselves more as legislators. One of the many wealthy individuals and foundations now claiming to be “saving democracy” should be giving us all free training on how to understand budgets and bills, including ballot 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, which is hosting an event with the Berggruen Institute, the Public Policy Institute of California, and the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, “Is This What Direct Democracy Looks Like? in LA and online May 11 at 7 p.m.