Higher Turnout Shouldn’t Discourage Direct Democracy

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)

The high turnout in this November’s elections in California is good news – mostly. More people were engaged, and new laws to encourage voting did the job. Indeed so many people voted that it may be possible that more than half of the 25-plus million Californians who are eligible to vote may have cast ballots. It would be the first time in ages that, among eligible adults, the voters would outnumber the non-voters.

But there are downsides to high turnout. The first is obvious: the high turnout represents the real threat that Trumpism poses to our state and our country. The second is less obvious.

High turnout discourages public participation in the making of laws and constitutions – at least in California.

That’s because our system of direct democracy is set up to make it harder to qualify initiatives and referenda after a mid-term election with big turnout. The signature requirements for qualifying measures are not hard figures but percentages – of the number of people who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election.

The high turnout will send the numbers of signatures necessary much higher – by hundreds of thousands of additional signatures. Securing those high numbers of signatures will require much more money from those who want to put measures on the ballot. And the process of getting on the ballot was already difficult and too costly for all but the richest people and interest groups.

So the high turnout will further limit the number of people and groups who can participate in statewide direct democracy in California.

What to do?

The best answer would be to embrace initiative reform that provides non-monetary paths to the ballot. Ideally, a citizens commission, of California voters drawn randomly, could consider initiative proposals and decide to place on the ballot anything that they decided was worthy.

Of course, granting ballot access on the merit of an idea—rather than money—is considered excessively radical in the bizarre world of California governance. So a more political realistic approach would be to eliminate the percentages – 5 percent of turnout for referendum or initiative statute, 8 percent of turnout for a constitutional amendment—in favor of a fixed number of signatures.

I would suggest that the signature numbers be set at 250,000 for a referendum, 500,000 for an initiative, and 1 million for a constitutional amendment. It also would be good to give people more than the current six months to gather—2 years would be ideal and line up with direct democracy systems in other parts of the world—so that non-billionaires and real grassroots groups could qualify measures.

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