Happy 100th Birthday to California’s Citizen Initiative

President of Citizens in Charge

On this very day a century ago – October 10, 1911 – California voters trekked to the polls to overwhelmingly enact a measure establishing a statewide system of initiative and referendum. Then-Governor Hiram Johnson, newly elected on a reform platform, seized the opportunity presented by his electoral mandate to convince legislators to propose this relatively new and more direct democratic check on government.

Today, the initiative process has become nearly synonymous with California in the minds of folks across the country and around the world, though only 116 initiatives have passed over the last 100 years – barely more than one a year.

At “The 100th Anniversary Celebration of California’s Initiative & Referendum” event today in Sacramento, a politically diverse group of initiative practitioners, journalists, academics and political leaders will discuss the impact of the past century of citizen-lawmaking, as well as ways to improve the process and what the next 100 years of citizen initiatives may mean for Golden State governance.

The banter may be surprisingly similar to the debates heard a hundred years ago. Sure, Californians have changed their minds and their government plenty through the years, but the debate over initiative and referendum has changed hardly at all.

Back in 1911, opponents of then-Proposition 7 claimed in the voters’ pamphlet, “The people at large have not the inclination or time . . . to devote to the study of these questions such as is necessary to become thoroughly informed. . . . Is it not reasonable to suppose that preconceived notions, demagoguery, and prejudice will largely enter into the making of laws by means of the initiative and referendum system?”

Recently, the Think Long Committee for California, comprised of political and business luminaries, suggested that California must stop “relying on the public to have the knowledge and competence to sort through the thicket of special interests and spin the initiative process has become.”

Earlier this year, William Endicott, former deputy managing editor of The Sacramento Bee, wrote similarly, “Outcomes too often have been decided not by reasoned debate but by emotional appeals, mind-numbing and misleading television commercials and direct mail, all of which do more to confuse than to enlighten.”

In other words, democracy may be just swell in theory, but that new-fangled TV is too much for gullible voters. Let’s hit the kill switch on the initiative process and pin all our hopes in our brainy, courageous legislators. Endicott urged legislators to “make it more difficult to qualify a measure.”

But if voters are so easily fooled, why have they defeated two-thirds of proposed initiatives? Last year, Pacific Gas & Electric spent $46 million in an attempt to pass an initiative measure that would have protected the company from competition, outspending their opponents by a margin of 161 to 1 – and still lost at the ballot box.

Conversely, issues such as term limits on legislators have prevailed even when dramatically outspent. Reforms like term limits, on which elected officials have a conflict of interest, are achievable only through the initiative process by which voters can make changes without the permission of their public servants.

In 1911, supporters of establishing initiative and referendum said of the initiative, “It is not intended and will not be a substitute for legislation, but will constitute that safeguard which the people should retain for themselves, to supplement the work of the legislature by initiating those measures which the legislature either viciously or negligently fails or refuses to enact; and to hold the legislature in check . . . All objections finally and ultimately center in a distrust of democracy; in a challenge of the power of the people to govern themselves.”

Not so surprisingly, 76 percent of voters in 1911 said “yes” to initiative and referendum. On the 100th anniversary of that decision, polling shows today’s Golden State electorate continues to support the initiative by that same three-to-one margin.

After a century of experience, some still doubt the ability of the average voter to engage in decision-making. But Californians, like people everywhere, are fully capable of self-government. The voters may not always be right, but they have the right to decide the issues that affect their lives.

That is something well worth celebrating today – and every day.

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