Voters favor the overall process, but see value in tweaks
by Brian Leubitz
The Public Policy Institute of California is out with a new report on the California initiative process (PDF). The quick takeaway: voters love it, but want to change it. In fact, the percentage of voters saying that they like the system has stayed about the same over the past ten years. In their most recent poll, 72% of voters supported the system. Despite the fact that most voters spend a few spare minutes about the proposed changes, about six in 10 adults (57%) and likely voters (60%) say that the decisions made by California voters are probably better than those made by the governor and state legislature. All that positivity despite the fact that 63% of likely voters think that special interests have too much control over the initiative system and 67% feel that there are too many initiatives. So, there’s that.
But, in the end we do pay those legislators to become experts on public policy, so why not use them? And it turns out that the voters aren’t actually against that, and favor two common sense reforms that would align the use of the plebiscite with our representative democracy:
Three in four adults say that the initiative process is in need of either major (40%) or minor changes (36%), while only 17 percent say it is fine the way it is.
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Eight in 10 (79% adults, 78% likely voters) favor having a period of time during which the initiative sponsor and the legislature could meet to look for a compromise solution before an initiative goes to the ballot. … Overwhelming majorities of adults (76%) and likely voters (77%) support a system of review and revision for proposed initiatives to try to avoid legal issues and drafting errors. … Lowering the vote threshold for the legislature to place tax measures on the ballot has solid majority support among adults (61%) and likely voters (60%). (PPIC Report)
Those first two reforms would go a long way toward reducing the number of measures actually on the ballot. While some subject matters will never really have the support in the legislature and will end up at the ballot, the time for public discussion in the legislature will be positive either way. Of course, that also raises another route for special interests to control the debate, as they can force issues onto the legislative docket even if they don’t plan on supporting the measure at the ballot.
The final issue is a little more surprising, as voters think that they should get the chance to vote on revenue issues more frequently. Perhaps this is somewhat a function of the Governor’s campaign promises to bring his taxes to the ballot, but the myth of the state’s love for supermajorities takes another blow here. While it still won’t allow revenues to get a simple majority in the legislature, which would be a true representative democracy, it is a step in the right direction.
All of these changes would require measures on the ballot after approval from the legislature or signature gathering. It would not be a big shock for reforms along these lines show up in the next legislative session, but as constitutional reforms, they would still face challenges to getting to the ballot.