Nothing makes academics, self-described good government types, editorial writers and elected officials happier than denouncing the initiative process as chaotic, confusing, serving the special interests, and end-running the Legislature. They argue that voters are deceived by misleading sounding initiatives; fail to vote on many measures: and often don’t get the outcomes they think they are getting.
Indeed, historically only a third of all initiatives are actually approved by the voters, but polling consistently shows that voters strongly support the initiative process as a way of approving measures which special interests block in the Legislature.
The November 2016 election again explodes myths about the initiative process. A remarkable ten out of 16 initiatives were approved: double the usual approval rate. Voter turnout was quite high, as usually happens in a year when a new President is elected. Many of these voters only vote every four or even eight years, and one might expect them to be less engaged in the down-ballot initiative measures. But nearly as many people voted on most initiatives as voted for President.
Another urban legend is that voters get tired, and just stop voting on the last ballot measures. But there were just as many votes on measures at the end of the ballot as those in the beginning.
A closer look at the initiatives reveals that the Legislature could easily have acted on many of those which passed, avoiding the need for costly initiative efforts.
Marijuana: polling before the election indicated strong voter approval of recreational use of Marijuana. A simple majority of the Legislature could have approved this, and most urban counties voted 58% or more in support of the initiative. There should have been plenty of votes in the Legislature for this.
Medi-Cal Hospital Fee. The legislature could easily have put this on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.
Criminal Sentencing. Since the Governor strongly supported this measure, democrats should have passed this by a simple majority in the Legislature.
English proficiency. A simple majority of the Legislature could have placed this measure on the ballot. There was no need for an initiative.
Firearms and ammunition. Actually, the Legislature pretty much did pass this.
Others required an initiative.
Cigarette tax. The legislature is so dominated by the tobacco lobby they could not even approach this question. Pathetic.
School bond. Usually a no-brainer in the Legislature, but the governor was opposed, so an initiative was required.
72 hour requirement for a bill to be in print before a vote. No way was the Legislature going to give up the time honored procedure of last minute “gut and amend”.
Extension of tax on rich people. The Governor was opposed.
Death penalty. This was too hot a potato for the Legislature to handle.
The initiative process is alive and well in California, much to the delight of the voters, as opposed to the elite and well-connected.
Gerald Meral is responsible for nine ballot initiatives, four of which passed. He is director of the California Water Program of the Natural Heritage Institute.