INITIATIVE ANNIVERSARY: 100 Years of Ballot-Box Battles – Political Process Still Controversial

Published on

SACRAMENTO – If Hiram Johnson, the California governor who campaigned in 1910 vowing to bring the initiative process to state voters and then delivered on that promise a year later, were alive today, he would not be surprised by the criticisms leveled against the state's now century-old process of direct democracy.

Back in the day, he had heard them all before.

'The objections you hear today were with us from the beginning,' said Joe Mathews, a New America Foundation fellow who has written extensively on California's initiative process.

Complaints about abuses of paid signature-gatherers, the undue influence of wealthy special interests, the lack of protections for minorities' rights, the fiscal havoc caused by ballot-box budgeting – 'These are very old arguments,' he said .

Mathews was the opening speaker Monday at a daylong seminar celebrating the 100th anniversary of passage of the constitutional amendments that put the initiative, referendum and recall in California's Constitution. Those processes allow residents to place measures on the ballot to create laws, overturn them or oust an elected official in the middle of his or her term.

When Johnson and his Progressive allies asked voters to approve those measures on Oct. 10, 1911, they were under no illusion that the political processes they were proposing would be orderly.

'These were not idealists,' Mathews said. 'These people had been in fights. They were tough. They were cynical.' In fact, Johnson once described the initiative process as being akin to 'a gun in a man's hand.' A century later, it was evident Monday that the initiative practice's greatest defenders retain that same fighting spirit.

Consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield, the father of Proposition 103, the 1988 ballot measure that strictly regulated auto insurance rates, walked into the conference room with a crate full of 8,000 faux $1,000 bills representing an $8 million contribution made last month by Mercury Insurance Co. Chairman George Joseph to promote an initiative for next year to eliminate one of Prop. 103's provisions.

'We believe the initiative process is suffering from Mercury poisoning,' Rosenfield said, adding that in the last two years, Mercury, Pacific Gas & Electric and the oil industry have underwritten initiatives to try to enact laws that serve their interests.

'The same interests that dominate the Capitol are trying to seize the initiative process,' he said.

Although Rosenfield advocates an amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating that corporations do not 'have the same First Amendment rights as human beings,' he believes reformers largely should keep their hands off California's initiative process.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, named for the father of Proposition 13, said his organization 'lives and dies by the initiative process.' Jarvis' property tax-limiting initiative 'was opposed by everyone' – state and local officials, chambers of commerce, labor groups, education groups and newspaper editorial boards, he said.

'Everyone was against it except the people of California,' he said.

Jennifer Fearing, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said her organization has sponsored a half-dozen successful initiatives in recent years, including Proposition 2, a 2008 ballot measure that prohibited certain agricultural practices that it considered cruel to farm animals. Despite industry opposition, it was approved overwhelmingly, receiving 'more yes votes than any initiative in California history.' Participants at Monday's conference said the initiative process at its best is a means for people to cross party lines to overcome special-interest influence that obstructs action in the Legislature.

The approval of Prop. 103 showed that ordinary voters could use the initiative to overcome special-interest control of the Legislature, Rosenfield said. He called the centennial of the creation of the initiative process 'a majestic reminder of our strength as citizens. I say, 'Happy birthday.' '


Contact the author at: [email protected] or 916-444-3958

Latest Videos

Latest Releases

In The News

Latest Report

Support Consumer Watchdog

Subscribe to our newsletter

To be updated with all the latest news, press releases and special reports.

More Releases