Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fixing California's Initiative System

My home state of California has always tried to be on the forefront of law and politics, to be as progressive as possible. California was one of the first community property states (implemented to encourage more women to move to California), one of the first to reform its procedures for lawsuits (the Field Code, for you legal scholars), and one of the first to allow the citizenry to vote on legislation that created and drafted by other citizenry - the initiative system.

And from that system, there's been some good things like medicinal marijuana, and real clunkers like Prop. 8, which made same-sex marriage unconstitutional, and the latest disaster - an initiative that would allow Californians to shoot and kill gays on the spot. But on the more pedestrian level, the initiative system allows the corporations to pull a lot of crap. For instance, in San Diego, when the City of San Diego refused to allow a Wal-Mart to be built in an area, Wal-Mart threatened to force the City into an expensive special election by placing its hand-written initiative on the ballot. Currently, there's a petition out there that would reverse an earlier, 7-2 decision by the City of San Diego to build a residential/commercial development, put forward by the developer's competition in the area.

Part of what drives the problems in the initiative voting process is the fact that voter turnout varies - general elections of Presidents get high turnout (50% or more of registered voters), primaries have a lower turnout (around 20-40%), and special elections have even lower turnouts (some as low as 10%). But an initiative passed in any election, regardless of the votes it receives, becomes law. What's more, the legislature can't overturn the initiative, but instead has to work around it. Little wonder the whole process is broken.

So, I have a few ideas on how to fix what could be a good system.

1) QUORUM CALLS: In any legislative body, anywhere, before the body can vote on any piece of legislation, the body has to count the number of members present to determine if there is enough people to vote. If there is enough people, there's a quorum, and the vote progresses, if not, the vote stalls. But as I stated above, once an initiative makes it on the ballot, it gets voted on, regardless of turnout, and if it passes, it becomes law. 

So, here's how I would fix that. If the People of the State of California are sitting as a legislative body, then like any other legislative body, there has to be a quorum of votes before any initiative can pass. This would be counted on election day (obviously), and I would humbly suggest that the quorum for initiatives be 50% of registered voters.  So, for an initiative to pass in this system, not only would the initiative have to get the majority of people who vote to vote for the initiative, but when counting the total votes (everyone who votes for and against the initiative), at least half of registered voters must have voted on the initiative one way or the other.

If there was such a requirement, think about how this would work - virtually every special election initiative would be lose because of turnout. That threat by Wal-Mart, or for One Paseo would also go nowhere. And that's important because special elections cost extra money that cities and counties may not have. What's more, there would be a focus on getting people to vote for the ballot initiative either way. 

2) VARY THE THRESHOLDS: One other annoying feature of the initiative system is that it allows voters the alter the California Constitution by a simple majority. And in the case of Prop. 8, this meant taking away some fundamental rights (the right to marry) from a whole lot of people by a majority vote. This is also stupid. If the State Legislature wants to amend the California Constitution, it requires a 2/3rds vote. The voters of the State of California should be held to the same standard. So, I would would require that any constitutional amendment must 1) meet the quorum requirement from above; and 2) get at least a 2/3rds vote. By the way, we already do this in the case of tax increases. Why should fundamental rights be any different.

And ultimately, this requirement would encourage more initiatives to be passed as statutes, not as amendments - which is a fantastic thing because even well-meaning initiatives are poorly written or poorly thought out. But if an initiative is a statute, rather than an amendment, it can be modified, corrected, or even overturned by the State Legislature and Governor. And given that the California State Legislature is a functioning legislature (unlike, say, Congress), the ability to modify statutes is significant.

While my suggestions may be idiotic for a variety of reasons, something has to be done to fix the initiative system.

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