Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Stop Calling It 'Direct Democracy' And You Might Have Something

The Bee's Dan Weintraub looks at possible changes to the initiative system:

If there was one good thing accomplished by the special election called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this year, it might be that it forced the electorate to ponder the value of direct democracy and the rules California uses to place issues in front of the voters.

A poll taken just after the election by the Public Policy Institute of California suggests that while voters still think they are better decision-makers than the people they elect to office, they are willing to consider tinkering with the initiative process in ways that could improve it.
Leaving aside for a moment how amazingly the first part of that survey finding is . . . .

Actually, I'm a tad pressed for time right now, so rather than comment on the article - here's some parts especially worth reading. Then you comment on it:

Not surprisingly, given the sense that Schwarzenegger was manipulating the election calendar for his own benefit, a majority (53-40) said they would support allowing initiatives only on the November general election ballots rather than on primary ballots and at special elections. And 54 percent said they think the governor should be able to call special elections only with the approval of the Legislature.

A huge majority - 77 percent - said they favor a system of review and revision of proposed initiatives. More specifically, 83 percent said they would support a cooling-off period during which the initiative sponsors and the Legislature could meet in search of compromise before an initiative goes to the ballot. Support for such a system was high across all regions and party lines.

Backing was just as strong (85 percent) for increasing public disclosure of the money behind signature-gathering campaigns and the initiatives themselves, and nearly as many voters (77 percent) said they thought the initiative campaigns should be required to participate in a series of televised debates.

Of all these options, the idea of allowing the possibility for compromise is the most promising. California once had such a system, known as the indirect initiative, but it was scrapped in the 1960s because it had been rarely used. Perhaps the time is right to bring it back.

Direct democracy purists insist that once voters have signed petitions to place a measure on the ballot, it should not be changed. But as we have seen, the rigidity of that system leads to the enactment of measures flawed by drafting errors, misjudgments or unforeseen consequences. When that happens with legislation, it is fairly easy to fix, but not with ballot measures.

A review process would also allow for compromise. One idea is to allow supporters of an initiative to gather signatures to qualify for a series of legislative hearings on their measure. If the Legislature, after the hearings, adopted the measure as proposed, it would not go on the ballot. If lawmakers adopted a modified version, supporters would be free to go forward if they wanted to or drop their measure at that point. You could even allow them to take suggestions that further the purpose of their proposal and then put the modified version on the ballot.


Anonymous said...

These seem like decent ideas to deal with the great problem of initiatives (IMHO), which is that they are a poor vehicle to deal with complicated problems or policies.

Case in point is Prop 77, the redistricting initiative. If ever a measure was meant to bypass the legislature via initiative, it's a redistricting measure. There's too much institutional incentive to avoid dealing with redistricting, otherwise. But the complicated selection process for the redistricters, along with the mid-decade redistricting, doomed Prop 77. Perhaps the consultation and compromise requirements described in this article would have avoided those problems.

Anonymous said...

Separately, I'd like to note another interesting aspect to the compromise and consultation ideas in the article. I think it's often true that when groups are allowed to discuss a policy, and some of their strongest objections are aired and dealt with, that the acceptance of that policy will later be much broader, and opposition much narrower and shallower. These suggested process changes for initiatives might have some added effect in reducing the partisan polarization that has recently afflicted much of the initiative process, and may reduce the public choice problem of the highly interested special interest groups paying large amounts of money to oppose certain initiatives.