On Initiative Reform, Ignore the What’s Next CA Deliberative Poll

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)

A couple weeks ago, the brilliant Pete Peterson, of Pepperdine’s Davenport Institute, used this space to point to the deliberative poll, What’s Next California, as a guide for public opinion on initiative reform, a topic being debated today.

I hate to contradict, Pete, but….well… I know that deliberative poll. I attended that deliberative poll. That deliberative poll was run by friends of mine (at least they were friends of mine until this post). And I can tell you…

You can safely ignore that deliberative poll. It has nothing to say about initiative reform today.

That’s not to say the What’s Next CA poll didn’t have value. It did, as I recounted here back in June 2011. Stanford Professor Jim Fishkin did a terrific job putting it together. There were some fairly clear and informed findings on representation. And there was no ideological bias that I could detect.

But the initiative piece of the polling effort was very weak – the weakest piece of the poll. The information provided about the initiative process was poor, both in quality and quantity, and there were barely 45 minutes in groups for deliberation. And in a panel discussion to inform the deliberation, the panelists often avoided the question in favor of broad, generalized (and somewhat inaccurate) statements about the process.

I’m not saying any this from memory. At the time of the poll, I reported here at Fox & Hounds Daily:

The information on the initiative process was insufficient for a productive deliberation.

Caveat: I’m very hard to please when it comes to discussions of the initiative process, the part of the California governance structure I understand best. But I thought the information given deliberators was so incomplete that the entire conversation wasn’t much use.

Deliberators simply couldn’t get answers to several of the informational questions they asked during a panel discussion on initiatives. Among the questions left unanswered was a query about the different possible ways to do title and summary and make initiatives clearer. (Other states and countries offer a wide variety of models, but none of that was communicated). Even more crucial, a question about what other states do in terms of permitting legislative bodies to undo initiatives after a set of period of time also went unanswered. This is important because it goes to the heart of what makes California an outlier in the initiative process – we’re the only place on earth that prohibits legislative amendment of initiative statute, and we’re one of the least flexible places in terms of permitting compromise and the fixing of errors in the early stages of an initiative process.

There are options and arguments on all sides of the question of how to change the initiative, whether your goal is to restrict the process, or expand it, or some combination of both. But deliberators, unfortunately, heard almost none of them.

The deliberative poll isn’t useful now just because the information and deliberation was insufficient back then. Polls, even deliberative polls, are snapshots in time, and this poll is old – nearly two years old. The political context has changed. There’s been much more discussion of the initiative process and its flaws.

And the legislature is different. That’s not just the two-thirds supermajority (albeit one that ebbs and flows with local and special elections) for the Democrats. The legislature is considerably more popular, with approval ratings above 40. Since initiative reform is often framed as a choice between the legislature and the people (this is a false, dumb way to frame the question, but that’s another story), the public’s view of the legislature make a big difference.

I’m confident that providing the public thorough, accurate information in a longer deliberative process would produce very different results on initiative reform.

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