Recent news reports focus on a so-called “loophole” in campaign finance in California—specifically, that politicians can accept donations of any amount by setting up political committees to support or oppose a ballot measure.
This continues to be seen as a problem—a way to bribe politicians with big donations, and get around campaign finance limits. But it’s not. Unlimited donations to ballot measures make sense, at least under the perverse logic of California governance.
Politicians are elected to make and enforce laws. In California, with a powerful initiative process to make laws, dealing with ballot measures is part of the job of politicians. And pols should have robust fundraising into their own ballot measure accounts. These accounts are essential tools to defend and advance legislation. And since wealthy interests and people can come out of nowhere to advance their own legislation via ballot measures at almost any time, having these accounts, and unlimited donations, gives politicians a fighting chance on an unlevel playing field.
Now, should we do so much legislation this way via ballot measures? And should the ballot initiative be so powerful? My answers to those questions would be no and no. But that is the way things are. Political reformers and press folks who criticize pols for keeping these accounts are being unfair, in this system.
However, it is possible to imagine a better ballot measure system. It would be more flexible, with laws made by initiative and other ballot measures more easily amended. And it would treat ballot measure votes less like campaigns but more like a public extension of the legislative process. There would be healthy public infrastructure to make sure that all sides of a ballot question had support for making their voices heard. That public infrastructure might include public financing for yes and no campaigns, to make the playing field level.
If that were how direct democracy worked in California, then there would be a case for limiting politicians’ ability to open and accept unlimited donations to ballot measure committees. Or to put it another way, closing the ballot measures committee “loophole” should start with a broader initiative reform that truly levels the playing field and guarantees a balanced debate over ballot measures.