(Editor’s Note: State Treasurer John Chiang issues a monthly newsletter, Intersections, which offers facts and analysis about California’s debt, investments and economy. Each newsletter contains a feature titled Head to Head that offers differing views on Golden State policy and politics. For November, the discussion was about the initiative process featuring pieces by Joel Fox and Joe Mathews. The articles are republished with permission back to back below.)

Differences between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, so recently re-invigorated from dusty history books by the Broadway smash “Hamilton,” is actually a good place to begin consideration of California’s initiative process. The divergent attitude of these founding fathers serves as a map to the appropriate role of the people’s involvement with making laws.

Hamilton fretted that if the people became involved in policy choices they would make decisions on what pleased them rather than what benefited them. Jefferson’s rejoinder was that the people are the safest, if, perhaps, not the wisest depository of public interest.

The initiative process serves as a check on legislative power. How valued is the people’s role in legislating? In the California constitution, Article I declares the people’s right to instruct their representatives and petition government for redress of grievances. Article II contains the initiative, referendum and recall powers. You have to skip down to Article IV before legislative power is framed.

History informs us that the initiative came about because the legislature at the turn of the last century was in the pocket of powerful railroad interests. Interestingly, on the 1911 special election ballot, in which voters affirmed the initiative process, there were 23 constitutional amendments. The only one that failed would have permitted elected officials to get discounted or free rides on public transportation. In other words, the legislators were taking care of themselves.

The legislature doesn’t reform itself; it consolidates power. It doesn’t always look after the best interests of the people. The initiative process has often been used to establish reforms to the legislative process. A recent example moved redistricting from the legislature to an independent commission, ending gamesmanship designed to keep incumbents in power.

The initiative process is not perfect. Voters may be frustrated with facing 17 ballot measures this year. (Although, that too can be laid at the feet of legislative manipulation by eliminating initiatives on the June primary ballot.) There are issues about clarity of measures and money in the process, although studies prove that while money can get you on the ballot it cannot guarantee a win at the polls.

However, the reason the initiative process remains so popular with voters is because it serves as the ultimate safety valve for voters against government missteps. To quote Jefferson, “The good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves.”