The Referendum, the once promising third child of California’s direct democracy who spent much of her life in the shadow of her brother Initiative, died in late June on the floor of the Capitol. She was 101.
No autopsy was ordered, despite signs of foul play. But family members said she was effectively killed by the state legislature’s use of budget trailer bills to shield non-budget items from the referendum. The budget cannot be subject to referendum.
In truth, the California Referendum, born in an October 1911 special election, had been sickly for much of her life, a result of Progressive fascination with the Initiative, which was designed as a stronger tool. It was harder to qualify a Referendum than an Initiative – because there’s less time than for an Initiative (only 90 days as compared to 150) and the same number of signatures.
As a result, she quickly fell into disuse. She had been filed fewer than 85 times in a century. Californians routinely filed 100 Initiatives or more in each election cycle. Privately, she was taunted at conferences as “the Tito Jackson of California Direct Democracy,” to the Initiative’s Michael and the Recall’s Jermaine.
The passage of Prop 25 in 2010 spelled the beginning of the end for Referendum. That Initiative had been pitched as merely an attempt to rationalize the budget process—by eliminating the 2/3 vote for passing budgets and replacing it with a majority vote. But it left open a loophole that allowed a path to avoid referenda: putting them in budget trailer bills. The passage of one such trailer bill, to advance constitutional amendments up the ballot, triggered a stroke that killed Referendum immediately.
“My sister believed in direct democracy more than all of us,” said her other brother, Recall, in a statement. “But she thought that meant a direct conversation between the people and their elected officials over legislation. Californians never really embraced her.”
Referendum — like Jerry Lewis, David Hasselhoff, and proportional representation — was appreciated more overseas than here in the U.S. The use of the Referendum grew rapidly around the globe, particularly at the local and provincial government level. In other country, Referendum was far more popular than initiative. But she never caught on in California, and it rankled.
In a public letter released on her 100th birthday to the state of California, Referendum shared her own bitterness with her brother Initiative. “From the beginning, he got all the attention. He was always in the spotlight. And everyone wanted to play with him,” she wrote.
In the same letter, she argued for reconsideration of her strengths. “I’m the answer to what everyone says they want. Citizen engagement? I force voters to actually pay attention to what their government does and vote on their actions. I’m not about circumvention of the legislature – I’m about creating conversations between the people and their elected leaders. What could be better than that?”
But the letter fell flat, and friends said she slid into self-destructive behavior. Earlier this year, San Francisco police were called to a bar in the Tenderloin, where Referendum, appearing intoxicated, screamed “Screw the Progressives!” and “I Wish I Had Never Been Born.”
It was the last time she was seen in public.
Services are pending.