AB 1451, legislation sponsored by people who call themselves Democrats, is such a nasty and dishonest attack on California democracy that it’s fair to wonder if President Trump wrote it.

As I’ve explained before, California has a weak, rickety and highly expensive system for qualifying state and local ballot measures. AB 1451 makes that system even weaker, ricketier and even more expensive—to the point that direct democracy might be effectively dead.

That system relies, for better and for worse, on petition circulators who are paid by the signature. Many of the best circulators are aging, and it’s been hard to recruit and train new people. Many circulators refuse to work in California given other restrictions on the process—especially the often-thuggish behavior of local governments who use the police to harass or arrest circulators who operate in public spaces—in violation of their First Amendment rights to petition.

This is a system that needs beefing up or replacing. But while AB 1451’s backers—which include a majority of the legislature, since it’s now on the governor’s desk—claim to be cleaning up the process, the legislation itself demonstrates that they have little interest in making things better. Instead, it continues the Democratic pattern of imposing additional costs on the system—filing fees for initiatives were increased from $200 to $2000, and all initiatives were required to go on the November ballot, adding significantly to the costs of qualification and campaigns.

AB 1451 would impose costly rules on the existing system—like paying people by the hour—which would make the already extortionate cost of qualifying a measure ($5 million is typical) even higher. That’s why only rich people and interests can qualify measures now. This would even further limit the field, perhaps making direct democracy a game that only billionaires can play.

There is something Kafkaesque about legislators misrepresenting the purpose of legislation that, in its text, seeks to increase the penalties for misrepresenting the nature of proposed legislation (when it’s the form of a ballot initiative).

An honest attempt to clean up the process would start by giving ballot measures much more time—at least two years—to gather signatures. That would make the process less costly and encourage the use of volunteers (it actually costs more to collect signatures with volunteers than with paid circulators, for a host of reasons). 

But more broadly, California needs to stop basing its direct democracy on money at all. There should be a process through which any citizen can submit an idea for legal review and assistance with legal challenge. (And this shouldn’t cost $2,000—the too-high fee the legislature imposed on those who filed ballot initiatives a couple years ago). Once the idea is clearly found legal, the citizen should be able to bring it before a citizens committee, which could evaluate the idea on its merits, not the bank account of the person behind the idea. If the committee is convinced by the idea, its members could place the initiative on the ballot.

That would create an avenue that cuts paid signature gatherers out of the process entirely, while reinvigorating our direct democracy. It would be a system based on the quality of ideas. Unfortunately, our Democratic legislature, just like President Trump, prefers that democracy be based on who has the most money and power.