Reading the Props: 25 Is a Glorious Referendum

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Every two years, I read the full text of all statewide ballot propositions—because at least one Californian should.

Next is Prop 25 

My kingdom for a referendum. 

In most of the world, a referendum, like Prop 25, is the most common type of ballot measure. A legislature does something, and the people are asked whether they want to undo it. That is true, healthy direct democracy—a direct conversation between the governors and the governed.

Unfortunately, California rules incentivize ballot initiatives. Initiatives are not really direct democracy—they allow the voters, or interests, to circumvent elected officials. 

That’s why I found Prop 25 refreshing. It’s a referendum—the sort of thing we should have more of. 

The California legislature spent a lot of time looking at the cash bail system—and decided to all but eliminate it in 2018. It was a long process, with lots of scrutiny. Compromises were struck especially around a new set of risk assessments that would be used in lieu of bail.

But the bail industry didn’t much care for being eliminated, and qualified a referendum to throw the law out. After two years, the industry gets its vote. 

The law in question ran for more than 8,000 words. If you read any of the ballot measures, read this one. You’ll see professionally drafted legislation that represents trade-offs. You might like cash bail as a reform—since bail penalizes poor defendants. You might worry about undoing a longstanding practice and industry, and the fact that California is the first state to do it. But at least you’re voting on something that has been studied, vetted, and deeply considered.

You can’t say that of many ballot initiatives. 

So enjoy this referendum. A yes vote upholds the law. A no vote overturns it.

Vote your conscience.

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