The people’s initiative power has commenced its second century amidst strong public support and reformers’ continuing itch to tweak it.

The latest entry in the initiative improvement sweepstakes is from the Public Policy Institute of California, whose president, Mark Baldassare, has proposed several recommendations – in the name of voters – “to mend, not end, their direct democracy system.” Baldassare suggests:

The ostensible reason for these reforms is that voters are weary of the number of initiatives appearing on the ballot, or that the initiative process has been captured by wealthy special interests, leaving behind the good of the larger public.

Baldassare’s approach is reminiscent of proposals made earlier this year by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, who also urged reforms to exert legislative influence over initiatives and to permit the Legislature to place tax measures on the ballot with a majority vote.

While voters certainly have the right to complain about the number of ballot measures that confront them each election, the reality of the extent and nature of initiatives is somewhat different than elites might believe.

Over the past twenty years, voters have faced 214 ballot measures on 25 statewide elections.

The measures break down as follows:

This averages to about three legislative measures and five voter-qualified measures per election. (Of course, almost all of these measures were considered before the Legislature and Governor changed the law to require all initiatives to be on the November ballot.)

Ballot measures had the following passage rates:

Without a doubt, voters are discerning about their ballot measures, especially those placed on the ballot by initiative.

Special interest domination is ultimately a matter of perception, but it is hard to conclude that any one set of interests is forcing public policy through the ballot box. The 44 successful measures range across the board. Depending on the year, voters may take the side of an issue that is a switch from a previous position.

Depending on your perspective, over the past twenty years voters have either sent mixed messages or exercised subtle discretion on public policy:

The simple and unambiguous quality of the voter initiative (and referendum) is that it embodies reform. It provides a check on the Legislature’s action or inaction. It dispatches gridlock and refocuses the policy agenda. Any change to the voters’ arsenal of recourse will have to demonstrate that it does not roll back the balance between popular and legislative powers.