Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 28, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

WHY I HATE BALLOT INITIATIVES....I got a fair amount of email taking me to task for my stance of voting no on all ballot initiatives, so I thought I'd expand on the subject a bit and explain myself. There are three basic reasons I'm opposed to the initiative process:

  1. In California, ballot initiatives were originally a progressive-era reform designed to provide a way for grass roots movements to bypass a frequently corrupt legislature. Today, however, it costs millions of dollars to qualify and pass a ballot initiative, and this means that they are now overwhelmingly the handmaiden of well-funded corporate interests, not ordinary citizens. That's the unfortunate reality, and I really don't think that wealthy special interests need yet another outlet for influencing the political process. Since the original intent of ballot initiatives has all but disappeared, I don't see the point of keeping them around.

  2. Initiatives are constitutional amendments, which means that once passed they are almost impossible to change regardless of changes in the outside word. Even if I'm in favor of reforming bilingual education, for example, I don't think it belongs in the constitution. It belongs in the legislature, where it can be changed in reaction to new facts, new demographics, and the normal give and take of the political world.

  3. Initiatives increasingly are used to mandate specific expenditures. The result of this is that today the legislature has control over only a fraction of the state budget. (And when you add in federal mandates, contractual obligations, and court-ordered spending, the California legislature has practical control of perhaps 15-20% of the entire budget.) This is a horrible way of implementing budget policy.

The bottom line is that I think ballot initiatives do more harm than good these days. The process is mostly limited to use by wealthy interests that can afford expensive signature gathering campaigns and million-dollar ad buys, the results locked in stone for all time are increasingly reactionary, and they contribute to keeping the California legislature in a permanent state of infantilism since they control fewer and fewer important issues as time goes by.

The only real answer to this on my end is to vote no on everything and urge everyone else to do the same. My hope undoubtedly vain is that if enough people feel this way it will become almost impossible to get anything passed. And when that happens, special interests will give up and go back to bribing legislators, just like in the old days.

That said, I'll admit that my prohibition isn't absolute. Occasionally I vote yes on something, it's just that the bar is very high.

And with that in mind, Chris Nolan and Chris Mooney both have arguments for why they think the stem cell initiative ought to cross my threshold and get my vote. They haven't convinced me yet, especially since this initiative so clearly violates principle #3, but you never know. My mind isn't set in stone yet.

Kevin Drum 5:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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