Murder-Suicide? 30 vs. 38 Is Good – And a Model for Initiative Reform

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

For all our elections, there is so little real democracy in California that we no longer seem to know it when we see it.

Just look at the orgy of commentary from the political elite and the media about the battle between Propositions 30 and 38. The politico-media consensus is that Prop 38 and its sponsor, Molly Munger, have done some sort of public disservice by comparing her measure so forcefully with Prop 30. Indeed, she is being told by newspapers – the sort of places that used to believe in democracy – that she should stand down.

This is nuts, and profoundly anti-democratic. (And my usually wise friends at the Sacramento Bee would be wise to plead temporary insanity and retract, with an apology, this shameful editorial.A comparison between ballot measures on the same subject isn’t a problem. It’s the heart of democracy. Indeed, comparison enriches democracy by giving voters more information, and forcing the scrutiny of the measures being compared.

What do I mean? If Prop 30 or Prop 38 were alone on the ballot, the debate would be a very broad one over taxes and spending. That’s a debate that would ignore the details of the measure. But the fact that the two initiatives are competitors is driving coverage of and debate over the measure into the details of what’s in each initiatives. This is natural – because when you’re comparing two initiatives, you naturally want to ask what’s different between them. And it’s very healthy, because the details in initiatives matter, and scrutiny of those details teases out problems and unintended consequences.

Do you remember a recent California campaign in which there was more intense scrutiny and discussion of all the minor particulars of two measures? I don’t. We’re learning about all the accounts in Prop 30, its constitutional provisions, the exact nature of its taxes, the way it would interact with the general fund, the particulars of education funding, previous deferrals of education funding, state debt, and a host of other topics. I suspect voters are getting a fuller picture of these initiatives, in all their gory detail, than anything else on the ballot.

If only each initiative involved a comparative campaign….

You don’t have to wish, “if only.” It turns out that creating an initiative and referendum system that is based on comparative campaigns isn’t a new thought. It’s a very old thought. The Swiss, who inspired our direct democracy, promote comparative campaigns in their system. A Swiss ballot initiative vote is structured as a comparative, three-part question. The Swiss put each initiative on the ballot right next to a counter-proposal from the legislative body. So voters there contemplate initiatives in comparison to counter proposals.  This gives them rich campaigns that focus on the details of each measure, and the differences between them. (The Swiss also add a third question: if both of these competing measures pass, which do you prefer? That question gives voters who support both a way to state a preference, and those who oppose both a way to give weight to the one they find less offensive).

If you think about it, 30 vs. 38 is like a Swiss initiative campaign, only less well-designed. 38 is the ballot initiative from outside the government. 30 is the government-backed counter-proposal. Unfortunately, the two are separate on the ballot, and there’s no question asking voters which they prefer between the two.
Instead of denouncing Molly Munger, California newspapers and would-be reformers should be embracing the benefits of the 30 vs. 38 campaign – and pursuing initiative reform to make this kind of comparison the norm. Voters would have more information – which is what the editorial pages have long said they want.

To put it bluntly: all initiative campaigns should look more like the 30 vs. 38 battle. We should be celebrating Munger for making the comparison, and for the Prop 30 campaign for fighting back. A big problem in the California initiative process is that this kind of comparative campaign is so rare. An even bigger problem is that so many of our supposed guardians of democracy have lost their faith in democracy and can’t see this reality.

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