Tag Archives: Center for Governmental Studies



The Initiative Reform Task Force met during the Democratic Party’s November E-Board meeting in Anaheim to propose changes in California’s initiative process.
Chief among them is the immediate creation of a statewide “watch
network” to analyze proposed initiatives as soon as they appear–
BEFORE they are released for signatures.


Findings will then be published widely on the internet through both websites and e-mail networks. This requires no action by the legislature.
It requires grassroots activists to join together and become
researchers and bloggers who assemble and disseminate information about
the propositions that are about to enter the pipeline.


Findings will then be published widely on the internet through both websites and e-mail networks. This requires no action by the legislature.
It requires grassroots activists to join together and become
researchers and bloggers who assemble and disseminate information about
the propositions that are about to enter the pipeline.


First introduced at the beginning of the last century in response to railroad domination of the state legislature, the California initiative process
was conceived as a form of direct democracy through which regular
citizens could influence the political process. In recent years,
however, it increasingly has been taken over by corporations, wealthy
business interests, billionaires, and in this last election, tax-exempt
religious organizations. The outrage following this election cycle provides a unique opportunity to reform this process at last.


There is no shortage of ideas for reform. In 2000, Assembly Speaker Hertzberg formed a commission to study and recommend changes, and the Center for Governmental Studies has issued their second edition of Democracy by Initiative. Action is what is needed next.


Some of the identified problems within the current system include:

Confusing language and headlines. Summaries that omit key consequences.
Dumbed down slogans used to sell the measures to voters.

2.  Media that does not reach enough of an audience and lack of background knowledge resulting in no evaluation or opinion.

3.  Two-thirds vote needed to amend a constitutional initiative once passed, yet only a majority needed to pass it (even in a low-voter primary).

4.  Too many complex initiatives making it overwhelming for voters to make informed decisions.

5.  Repeating subject matter initiatives, e.g., this year’s Prop 4 defeated for the third time.

6.  Huge
contributions from interest groups that will benefit financially from
passage of the measure. Disclosure insufficient to tell voters of these
connections. Greater detail needed in filing statements. Secretary of
State’s website alone is not enough.

7.  Policy
agenda driven by initiatives rather than the elected state legislature.
Budget hamstrung by initiatives that impede the budgetary process.
Voters told that bonds are “not taxes,” when, in fact, they take money
directly off the top of the general fund used to pay for other state

8.  Signature
gathering by paid gatherers who do not know or care about what the
measure would do and often lie about the content (currently illegal,
but still done).


The constitution
of the state of California now is more than 110 pages long–longer than
all other states except for Louisiana. The state’s current financial
crisis is exacerbated by the ballot-box budgeting promoted by
ill-conceived measures sold to voters who often do not receive adequate
information to understand the consequences of the initiative. Enough!
It is time for reform to begin.


list of problems is by no means complete. Nor is the following list of
possible changes that would require action by the state legislature. This is to be considered an opening conversation to be joined and expanded upon by all interested citizens.


Initial recommendations of this Initiative Reform Task Force include:

1.  All
initiatives be voted on only in general elections and NOT in low
turnout primaries. There was some discussion that there be a required
percentage of participating eligible voters, but no consensus was
reached on what this level should be.

2.  All
constitutional amendments to be submitted to the voters in two
successive general elections and require 2/3 passage in each election.

3.  No initiative that allows subversion of the state budget by ballot-box budgeting.

4.  Limit the number of initiatives on each ballot.

5.  After
the signature gathering is concluded and the Secretary of State has
qualified the initiative to appear, institute a waiting period during
which the state legislature may act. The proposed period was three
months, however, it was noted that in some areas the period is one

6.  Citizens’ commission to evaluate proposition labels and summaries done by the Attorney General’s office.

7.  Prohibit
independent expenditure committees and require that supporters have to
spend money directly with the name of the corporation or person on all
disclosure forms.

8.  Paid
signature gatherers must wear a large button or sign that discloses who
is paying them. Prohibiting payment for signature gathering was also

9.  Require
that the entire language of the measure be on each signature page, or
that to each citizen be given a copy that must be read PRIOR to signing
the petition.

History of all previous bond issues with dates and recipients to be
prominently disclosed on an initiative involving a bond for the same


Initiative Reform Task Force currently includes members from the
Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Mountains,
the Courage Campaign, the Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica Democratic
Clubs, Valley Democrats United, and Westside Progressives. It is
anticipated that it will grow into a statewide network of citizen
activists to proactively monitor and analyze ballot initiatives BEFORE
the signature gathering is completed to provide an early alarm.


The Yahoo group we will use:  [email protected]

Is all this Direct Democracy Really Worth It?

About 220 years ago, America’s “Founding Fathers” got together and wrote an interesting little document dubbed the “Constitution.” It is a flexible document that has allowed us to move from an agrarian economy with heavy usage of slave labor to the modern bustling nation that we see today. In case you failed to notice, the signs of democracy are all around these days. This great document, which despite the Bush Administration’s best efforts, has stood the test of time.  But notice what’s missing from the Constitution: Direct Democracy.

Heck, the Founders didn’t even want Senators to be directly elected, that didn’t come until the early 20th Century. But here in California we can thank the railroads and Hiram Johnson for installing Direct Democracy in some pseudo-Athenian experiment.  Johnson intended the ballot initiative to be a way the “little guy” to trump the moneyed interest (at the time, the railroads). The trouble is, it hasn’t worked. Ever. It has never been a very good means of the grassroots triumphing over anybody really.  It has now become a full-employment mechanism for political types (um, thanks Hiram) and a means of bypassing the traditional means of getting a law passed: the legislature.

In case you doubt the role of money in initiative politics, there’s this story in the Bee:

Despite a 2000 law meant to curb the size of checks California politicians could collect from deep-pocketed interest groups, many lawmakers are skirting those limits by soliciting funds for ballot accounts. In many cases, the money is arriving in increments of tens, and even hundreds, of thousands of dollars.

The ballot accounts are legal and can be created without a specific ballot measure in mind. Donations to them can be limitless. The only difference is that elected officials can’t spend the money directly on their own re-election campaigns. (SacBee 5/5/08)

Last week, the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) released a report on the initiative process that recommended some pretty substantial changes, but the question is out there, is the initiative system worth saving?  

CGS feels that it should be saved:

Californians cherish the initiative process and trust it three times more than they trust the legislature. They now turn almost instinctively to the initiative process to address almost any problem, without first seeking a legislative solution.

In a perfect or near-perfect system of representative democracy, ballot initiatives would be unnecessary. Elected officials would be closely attuned to the public’s needs and desires, voters would be well informed on the issues of the day and legislators would be open to arguments on their merits. Government would respond appropriately to public needs, temper rashness with deliberation and accommodate legitimate desires for change without the necessity of direct popular votes through ballot initiatives.

But today such a legislative system does not exist in California or in any other state- if it ever did. The financial demands of elected office force candidates and officeholders to raise ever-increasing sums of money from special interests, leaving them susceptible to pressure and influence. The desire of incumbents for reelection has made them reluctant to develop controversial new policy initiatives. The complexity of governmental issues, together with the need of many officials to shape or control the spin of media information, has left many voters without the ability to review critically the records of officeholders at election time.

See the problem with all this direct democracy is that voters don’t have legislative anaylyst’s available at their whim to determine how this will impact the state. They are left with only the ads that the campaigns run and perhaps a few editorials and club endorsements scattered about.  Few actually are able to spend the time to determine whether it is actually a good idea.  

And truthfully in a state of 37 million people, would it really matter if they took the time? Sure, only about 10 million people show up to vote even in a good turnout election, but the costs of the time to study the legislation for somebody making 1/10,000,000 of the decision on whether to enact the legislation are enormous. For

This is why, over the years, we left Athenian democracy behind in favor of representative democracy. It allows a few people to specialize in making decisions on what is good policy. People who have time and other resources to determine what’s in the best interests of the state.  Now, they don’t always do that because of other problems in the system. However, many of those problems could be ironed out with the overturning of Buckley v. Valeo and the complete implementation of clean money campaigns.

Now, if we were to keep the initiative system, CGS has some reasonable and desperately necessary reforms. They recommend legislative oversight, a $100K limit on donations to initiatives, more accessible voter information (YouTube voter pamphlets anyone?), and the expansion on the amount of time to circulate petitions.

These are all important reforms, but can we overcome the underlying failures of direct democracy? In other words, is the system really worth it?

As somebody who is facing the barrel of the gun of a ballot initiative, in the face of the anti-marriage initiative, I’m inclined to say no. However, that is not to say that the system is without redeeming value, it’s just the bad seems to outweigh the good.