No birthday candles or cake, but there were a few fireworks at the 100th Anniversary Celebration of California’s Initiative & Referendum hosted by the Citizens in Charge Foundation and co-sponsored by California Forward and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
On October 10, 1911, California voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment establishing a statewide initiative and referendum system. More than 1,675 initiatives have circulated since, with 348 qualifying for the ballot. Voters have approved about a third of these.
Love it or hate it, the initiative process has unquestionably been a driver of political reform. Governor Hiram Johnson who championed the initiative in California called it “a gun in the hand” of voters. Historically, California voters have used direct democracy to enact change when their elected representatives have been unwilling to do so.
Panelists at Monday’s event included Joe Mathews with the New America Foundation; Paul Jacob, president of the Citizens in Charge Foundation; columnist Peter Schrag; Consumer Watchdog founder Harvey Rosenfield; Jonathan Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association: Jon Fleischman of the Flash Report; Wall Street Journal Columnist John Fund; Democratic strategist Joe Trippi; and California Forward Leadership Council member Lenny Mendonca, among others. The debate was heated at times.
Questions that came up included: Which is more transparent – the legislative or the initiative process? Which has more legitimacy in the eyes of the people? Has direct democracy brought positive change to California? How well-governed is California today in comparison to states without the initiative?
While opinions on these questions spanned the spectrum, even the most ardent supporters of the initiative process felt it could be improved. Two reforms garnered most support: lengthening the time permitted to gather signatures and permitting electronic signature gathering. Other suggestions included identifying financial supporters on campaign materials and engaging the Legislature in improving proposed initiatives.
Mendonca shared insights gained at the California Deliberative Poll last June. People view the initiative process as their own, and they are open to reforms that can help it work better. Ultimately, though, voters have no intention of ceding the power of the ballot.
Susan Lovenburg is Sacramento regional partnerships lead for CA Fwd.