Joel Fox was right in this space when he predicted that legislative Democrats may offer proposals to curb the power of the initiative and referendum process. 

He was  right to say that Democrats may use phony reforms to attack a process that saw voters go against them on property taxes, ending cash bail, and regulating the gig economy.

And he was right to suggest that’s bad news—since more recent Democratic moves on the initiative process (like raising filing fees and restricting initiatives to November ballots) have limited access to the process, thus making it even more dominated by the richest people, corporations, and unions.

But the Democrats’ advancing initiative reforms isn’t just bad news. It’s a huge opportunity—to open up the conversation about direct democracy.

The core problem with direct democracy in California is that everyone—elected officials, interest groups, media and voters—don’t understand it, or what it’s supposed to be. Direct democracy is supposed to be an endless conversation between the government and the people over specific laws and constitutional amendments. It’s supposed to be an open process, a slow process, full of debate, and back-and-forth proposals offered over many years

Californians, unfortunately, think it’s a brutal and quick way to impose your will on politicians. And so we’ve turned it into a battleground for people to spend hundreds of millions of dollars seeking policies that may not work, and spreading political messages that are full of disinformation.

Real initiative reform thus starts with making our direct democracy more democratic. It should make measures more flexible, so they can be amended by the legislature (and are thus less attractive for rich people trying to lock in their preferred policy for generations). It should create more infrastructure to support deliberation and information (like the Citizens Initiative Review in Oregon). It should create paths to advance ideas to the ballot that don’t have big-moneyed backers (a citizens commission to review initiative proposals would be one-way to do that).

And real reform would separate ballot measures from our candidate races, so they don’t appear on the same elections. Instead, California should create dates each year when we vote on no more than three proposals for laws or constitutional amendments at a time; those dates should fit the legislative calendar, since voters in direct democracy are acting as legislators.

Most likely, Democrats will not introduce proposals like these. They will try to reduce time to qualify measures, or increase signature requirements. They may make it harder to pass measures, by introducing supermajorities or quorum requirements, as Joel accurately predicts.

But when they do that, let’s be ready to counter-attack hard—to show that politicians are behaving not merely in self-serving ways by limiting the process, but in self-destructives ones. Let’s remind the legislature that there are many ways and many models for improving the California process. And that they have the power to make direct democracy more democratic.