Peter Schrag: Vote early, vote often — but vote on everything?

By Peter Schrag — Bee Columnist – (Published October 15, 2003)

If anyone believes that the recall of Gov. Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger marked some kind of pinnacle in California’s hyperdemocracy, let him think again.

Some two dozen initiatives and referendums are already in circulation; signatures for another initiative, aimed at the March 2004 ballot, have already been submitted and several more are being reviewed at the attorney general’s office prior to circulation.

Among them are measures permanently abolishing the car tax, overturning the controversial law granting illegal aliens the right to obtain California driver’s licenses, repealing the state’s new domestic partners law and blocking SB2, the bill that requires all but small employers either to provide health care for their workers or to pay into a state fund that will provide health care coverage.

More important, there’s a good chance that if the Legislature drags its feet on Schwarzenegger’s reform program, he’ll become the ringmaster for a wave of ballot measures all his own: a new measure imposing spending limits on the state budget and one shifting control of the decennial redistricting of Assembly, Senate and congressional seats from the Legislature to some kind of independent commission.

Schwarzenegger has already said that, if necessary, he wouldn’t hesitate to go over the heads of the Legislature and directly to the voters.

Also pending is the Voters Choice Open Primary Act, which would create a single primary in which members of all parties would run and where, if no candidate gets a majority, the two leading finishers would face off in the general election, even if both are from the same party.

That, in the view of its sponsors — and of many other people — would check the tendency of the parties to nominate candidates at the political extremes and bring more centrists to the ballot. If Schwarzenegger really sees himself as a force for moderate politics — and thus for a more effective, ideologically tempered Republican Party — the open primary act could be a tempting cause.

By its very nature, the initiative process has been a device to trump the Legislature. In practice, it has been an instrument of a statewide electorate that’s still disproportionately white, older, more affluent and more conservative than California’s majority-minority population.

And because legislative districts are equalized by population, not voters, the Legislature tends to look more like that population than the voters in statewide elections. In effect, the average California Democrat represents just as many people as the average Republican, but fewer voters.

The accumulating effects of 25 years of initiatives — from the tax limitations of Proposition 13 in 1978, to Proposition 98, the school spending formula passed in 1988, to term limits (1990), to the latter-day ballot-box budgeting that mandates spending on everything from parklands to roads to after-school day care — have so hamstrung both state and local governments that elected legislators, county supervisors and school board members have become the handmaidens, not the leaders, of policymaking in California.

Because of it they’ve become increasingly unable (and sometimes unwilling) to set priorities and respond to problems when they occur.

At the same time, the tangled rules and processes that initiatives have created make government almost incomprehensible to even the most diligent and well-informed citizens, and thus even more frustrating and less accountable to the voters.

Among the initiatives heading to the March 2004 ballot is a measure that would lower the votes needed to pass a state budget and raise taxes. Right now, a two-thirds vote is required in each house of the Legislature; the measure would reduce that to 55 percent. That would take away most of the veto power of political minorities and reduce and perhaps end the annual delays in passing a budget.

But even in the unlikely event that the measure passed, it won’t break California’s increasing reliance on the ballot box. The pending list of would-be initiatives, many of which won’t ever qualify for the ballot, includes a lot marginalia: measures regulating the confinement of pigs, pregnant pigs and veal calves; a measure eliminating fines for parking violations. But given the state’s increasing passion for quick-hit action at the ballot box, the string won’t end with pregnant pigs. The success of the recall, even if it doesn’t trigger other recalls, can only increase the pressure for more direct action.

There’s growing belief, both at the state and national level, that existing governmental structures are hopelessly dated, imposing the pace and political theory of the 18th century on the problems of the 21st. But however charmed some futurists are by the notion of some sort of instant electronic democracy, where people vote constantly on every conceivable question, the world is too complex, the need for expertise, deliberation and compromise too great, for good government to survive such a system.

Democracy may be in danger from domination by money, political venality and systemic dysfunction, but it’s in at least as much danger from solutions that quick-fixers have tried to impose. Representative democracy needs restoration, not replacement.

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