(photo credit: Joe Beone)
At first glance having a former governor, former Assembly Speaker and former state chief justice sit on a panel to talk about initiative reform seems like something of an odd combination. But if you consider that Gray Davis, Willie Brown, and Ronald George each come from one of the three branches of government and have close to 100 combined years of public service in their respective sectors, their selection by the Public Policy Institute of California starts to make a lot of sense.
With moderating duties helmed by the LA Times’ Patt Morrison, the PPIC’s Reforming California’s Initiative Process event, held Thursday afternoon in Sacramento, was an analysis of California’s popular but flawed process of direct democracy. The event shares its name with a PPIC report released this month by Mark Baldassare. “The reason PPIC got interested in writing this report is because the last ten years and in particular the last five years have been a period of historic interest in changing California,” Baldassare said, prior to turning it over to Morrison and the panel. “While many political insiders say the [initiative] system is broken, most Californians view the initiative process favorably. Strong majorities think it’s a good thing, and many voters believe their fellow voters are better at making decisions than the governor and the legislature.”
From Brown’s point of view, the initiative process has had positive effect on the makeup of the legislature, in reference to the direct democracy that took the district drawing pen away from the legislators. “It changed who drew the lines,” Brown said. “I loved drawing the lines when I was in the legislature, I loved being Picasso, and it elected some interesting people.” However, “the voters screwed themselves royally when they voted for term limits,” he continued. “Term limits eliminated a ton of talent in the legislature.”
While the system does work – it’s popular with Californians for a reason – Davis pointed out that it’s not quite the well-oiled machine of democracy it should and could be. “I do think you can make some improvements on the margins,” he said. “I think you can make a serious effort to write in plain English so voters can clearly understand.” The former governor went on to lament that when he was governor, a thousand laws were passed every year, likening them to missiles being fired skyward but without foresight. “No one sits down and says are these missiles running into each other, can people figure out what they’re supposed to do? The legislature should spend as much time on oversight as they do launching more missiles.”
George, as one would probably expect, had a legal perspective to the initiative process. “The fact is that these measures come up to us, sometimes dueling or conflicting initiatives, and we’re in charge of attempting to discern the intent of the electorate when they vote on these measures,” George said. “There is presently no effective mechanism for removing something from the ballot, or even correcting fatal errors and unintended consequences.”
But what it all comes down to is civic education. A startling percentage of Californians can’t name a single branch of government, and 40 percent of high school seniors believe the United States fought with Germany against Russia in World War II. Robust civic education isn’t something that’s feasibly going to happen at an official level, but California Forward believes that doesn’t mean we can’t do it on our own. The first step for reforming the initiative process is getting the voters that fuel its success informed and in the best position possible to make their vote, and make that vote a meaningful one.