California seems heady for a big, long, messy November ballot full of statewide initiatives and other ballot measures. Among the possible ballot occupiers are an Indian gaming referendum and measures on cigarette tax hikes, oil severance taxes, vehicle license fee hikes, a 12,000-person legislature, a water bond, pension reform, teacher tenure, marijuana, abortion, and the minimum wage. And then two health care initiatives (because everybody knows that there’s certainly nothing about the confusing, complicated, new Obamacare reality that couldn’t be improved with a couple of California ballot initiatives).
Not all of these will qualify, but it’s a safe bet that many will – and they all will be crammed onto the November ballot, as a result of a move by Gov. Brown and the Democrats to limit ballot initiatives to November elections. This is bad policy and politics, and virtually guarantees that Californians will be voting with less than sufficient knowledge to make intelligent, self-interested decisions at the polls. Few of the measures will get proper scrutiny and deliberation given the crowded field. And voters will have to contend with these long, complicated initiatives at the same time they are making choices about governor, the legislature and other statewide offices.
Is there any way to head off this madness?
Yes, there is. And I have a plan that would save the 2014 ballot from this initiative orgy – and create breathing room to change the initiative process to something more deliberate, humane, and coherent by 2016.
Another advantage of the plan: it corrects two fundamental mistakes in how we label elections – one made by centrist political reformers, another made by Democrats.
Here’s how the plan would work.
When reformers convinced voters to enact the top two system, they failed to change the labeling of the two elections we have in an election year. They kept calling the first election – the one in June 2014 – a primary, even though it’s not a primary. In fact, the central reform of the top two was to eliminate primaries – and instead throw candidates of each and every party onto the same ballot.
If the reformers had been careful, they would have labeled the June election as the general election—because that’s precisely what a top two election is. In a general election, every party (and non-party member) has a candidate on the ballot. The November election, under the top two system, isn’t a general election – it’s the runoff. It’s the June election that is general – and more important, with voters having the full choice of candidates from all parties.
The Democrats added to the reformers’ mistake when they pushed through the law moving all initiatives to the November elections. That legislation, however, said that all initiatives should be on the general election ballot. But while November elections are labeled the general election, they are not in fact general elections. The general elections in California are now in June.
The fix for these mistakes is simple. The legislature should pass, and Gov. Brown, should sign, legislation that clearly and correctly labels the June election as the general election. This change should start with the June 2014 election. As a result, initiatives in 2014 could only appear on the June ballot.
The impact in 2014 would be profound – a much lighter ballot. There’s simply not enough time between now and June for most of the potential 2014 measures to quality for the ballot. Initiative sponsors would have to drop their measures or continue collecting signatures – and then qualify for the next statewide ballot, presumably in 2016.
There would be howling and litigation from initiative sponsors of course, but so what? It would be good for California. Voters wouldn’t be confronted with a monstrously long ballot full of complicated measures in the fall. There would be an additional two years to debate, contemplate, and refine the ideas of initiative sponsors.
There also would be time and space to reconsider the timing and scheduling of the initiative process.
That reconsideration should lead to a couple of changes. First, ditch the legislation putting all measures on a single general election ballot—it makes it harder for people to be informed (no matter whether the election is in June or November). That would be a modest first step.
A second step would be more profound. Californians should replace the current system of voting for initiatives at the same time as statewide elections. Instead, initiatives should have their own calendar, separate from the one for candidate elections. This would allow voters to consider initiatives more completely, and reduce the cost to initiative campaigns of getting their arguments out (since they wouldn’t be competing with candidate elections for media time).
And with multiple voting dates each year, Californians could consider only one or two initiatives at each vote, so that voters can learn fully about each measure. The Swiss have this kind of separate calendar.
But to get to that point, we need to pull the emergency brake on the runaway 2014 initiative train. Fortunately, there is now a plan on the table.