Do you have ideas to offer on initiative reform? Great. Now
should be your moment.
The next few weeks should see
public and media discussion of the process. I’ll be moderating a free, public
event in San Francisco this Wednesday night (Sept. 21), with panelists from
across the country and the world and political spectrum offering ideas. We want
to hear yours. You can reserve a seat here (For
those of you in Southern California, there’s a free, public event in LA on Oct.
5, with details here).
What makes this such a good time
for discussion – and for the pursuit of comprehensive reform of the initiative
process? Here are five reasons:
When you have a big birthday, it’s
a good time to reflect. Well, the initiative is about to have a very big
birthday. Next month, the California initiative – along with its siblings the
referendum and the recall – will turn 100 years ago. Yes, it was in an October
1911 special election that California voters adopted statewide direct
democracy. And to a striking extent, the rules they adopted then remain in
place today. From the beginning, the initiative process was a powerful force
for locking law in place. (There were also things like paid petition
circulators that are considered, by some, modern maladies).
2. It doesn’t add to the
So many ideas for improving
California cost money. But initiative reform doesn’t involve new entitlements
or spending. It doesn’t require tax cuts for a favored industry. Maybe there will
be a special election somewhere down the road, or even a constitutional
convention, or revision commission. But the costs of those procedures are
3. It’s not a partisan issue.
At least not yet. Though Democrats
have done a pretty good job making the issue more partisan by pushing for
restrictions to the process and by playing with the election calendar for
partisan advantage. Initiative reform is one area where there should be
partisan agreement – if the parties are for what they say they are for.
Democrats say they want to get more
people involved in politics, so opening up access to the process – with more
time, more deliberation and the use of technology – is a natural Democratic
cause. And Republicans say they want more fiscal responsibility, so bringing
the initiative process under some of the controls of the budget process, and
the checks and balances of regular legislation, would be a natural for a
4. The world is full of good
models. Half the U.S. states have direct democracy at the statewide level, and
most of the world’s countries have some process on the books, usually at the
regional or local level. California has many examples to learn from in devising
constitutional reform is impossible without initiative reform.
Any kind of thoughtful redesign of
the California governing system must change three pieces: the election system,
the budget system, and the initiative system. And while a constitutional
convention or revision commission are necessary to get there, it’s likely in
initiative-mad California that initiatives will be involved somewhere in the
So if you must start somewhere,
start with the initiative process first.