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Obsessed With Who Funds Initiatives, Less Interested in What They Would Do

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)

You may have heard that this could be the Year of Initiative Reform. With so many groups considering reform proposals, I’ve been on the good government meeting circuit, participating on panels with would-be initiative reformers.

Among my good government friends, there is one big consensus on initiative reform: we must know more, much more, about who funds initiatives. They have all kinds of ideas for putting disclosure of those sources everywhere in very prominent places, from billboards to the ballot guide to the ballot itself.

That’s understandable. Such information is important, and disclosure is politically popular. But after attending so many events, the fixation of money in the process has started to feel like a little much. Particularly because there has been comparatively little said about what would seem a more fundamental problem: helping people understand what initiatives might do.

California initiatives have been getting longer. It’s not uncommon to have measures that are longer than the United States constitution. And they are so complicated that even their authors are uncertain of how they’ll work in practice. (And some initiative sponsors can remain deluded for generations; think of anti-tax conservatives who rail against public employee unions and then support Prop 13, which empowered them, or the education lobby, which clings to the Prop 98 funding guarantee when all it has guaranteed them is a huge relative decline in education spending in California when compared to other states)

Under the current regime, it is next to impossible for voters to understand what initiatives will do. Media doesn’t provide that detail. Neither does any other institution. And public debate often neglects key details. I travel the state constantly, and I’ve been conducting a test, asking voters whether they knew that Prop 30 – perhaps the most discussed ballot initiative of the last several election cycles – had a constitutional amendment that dedicated certain revenue streams to local government. Not one person I’ve encountered knew that simple fact.

By right now, people who know politics will say: that’s not a big deal. Voters cast their ballots based on cues – who is funding, who is supporting a measure. But that’s wrongheaded. It’s fine to vote for elected officials based on cues. But when voters are voting on initiatives, they are making law. The little details matter. We’re outraged when we hear lawmakers are voting for things when they don’t know what’s in them. We should be similarly outraged that California voters – who are citizen legislators – are doing the same thing.

There are many existing ideas out there for addressing this, from the use of citizens juries to write ballot arguments and titles, to separating ballot measure votes from candidate elections to provide more time and public scrutiny for each measure, to encouraging counter-proposals so voters can compare similar measures and their contents more easily; to requiring that initiatives be shorter or written in plain language. And with some attention and focus, Californians could probably come up with some new ones. Clarity is a subject worth obsessing over.

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