Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Initiative?

Sunday, July 30, 2000

As a newcomer to America’s "left" coast several years back, my education in politics west of the Rockies began with an invitation to a strategy session at then governor Pete Wilson’s reelection campaign. Sitting in a Sacramento conference room, I listened to a pollster detail how various issues were playing around the state. Illegal immigration resonated strongly with voters, I was told, as did crime and the economy.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.  

I smugly interrupted the presentation to ask how health care reform was playing in California. This was early 1994, mind you, and we Washingtonians were convinced that health care reform—namely, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ill-fated takeover of one-seventh of the U.S. economy—was the mother of all campaign issues. The pollster deadpanned: "I’m glad you asked. It’s at 4 percent. Just where it was the last time." The moral of the story: perception is one thing, reality quite another; now be quiet and you might learn something about California.

I recalled that episode after reading Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, David Broder’s look at the supposedly debilitating effect of ballot initiatives on the political process. Broder is, of course, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and columnist for the Washington Post and an elder statesman of political journalism. But in his book he makes the same error I did back in 1994, which is to view America’s West through a nonwestern mind-set.

Popular Democracy—for Better or Worse

Ballot initiatives are popular not because voters want to punish the political process but because the process already has punished them. The effect of initiatives on the political process is hardly debilitating. In the California experience in particular, ballot initiatives have served to force some important and necessary public debates that otherwise would have been shelved by feckless lawmakers.

I’ll explain why in further detail, but first, a little history.

The modern ballot initiative, or proposition, dates back to the closing days of the nineteenth century and our nation’s manifest destiny to the open space beyond the Mississippi River. Americans migrating west entered a political vacuum in which they could design their state political systems from scratch. What resulted was a race for the political upper hand—a race that initially went to the power brokers of the day: captains of railroads (such as Leland Stanford), agriculture, and mining. This obviously did not sit well with a voting population that was populist by nature—many of whom made the western trek expecting to escape the political machinery of the North and South. Thus the ballot initiative emerged as the people’s alternative to circumventing the special interests that dominated state capitals.

The first statewide ballot initiatives were voted on by Oregonians in 1899. Two decades later, 20 states allowed either initiatives (which are placed on the ballot by collecting a requisite number of voters’ signatures) or referenda (which are placed on the ballot by a legislative vote). At present, only 24 states allow their residents to put propositions on the ballot.

Not every initiative that appears on a state ballot is a slam dunk. According to the Initiative & Referendum Institute, the passage rate for initiatives over the past century is only 40 percent.

That’s hardly the stuff of which legends are made, yet this has not stopped Broder and the punditry elite from putting the initiative process in their crosshairs. "The growing reliance on initiatives in the half of the country where they are available," Broder writes, "is part of the increasing alienation of Americans from the system of representative government that has served this nation for over two hundred years."

"Part of the increasing alienation"? Yes, initiative-laden ballots make reading voters’ guides a confusing and tedious enterprise. But there are far bigger culprits in the gulf between voters and officeholders: candidates running soulless campaigns, controlled by even more soulless political consultants, compounded by a political press corps more interested in titillation than sober journalism.

Ballot initiatives have permitted some important and necessary public debates that feckless lawmakers would otherwise have blocked.

This is not to suggest that the initiative process is without fault. Three shortcomings come to mind:

1. Distortion. As with campaigns for individual candidates, initiative campaigns far too often boil down to last-minute saturation advertising—ads meant to deliberately obfuscate an issue, sometimes for purely selfish reasons. Take the campaign two years ago by Univision, the country’s leading Spanish-language broadcaster, to sink California’s Proposition 227 (which sought to end bilingual education). One can only assume that Univision executives concluded that a larger bilingual population would translate to fewer viewers of its strictly Spanish-language programming.

2. Incoherent or nonsensical measures. The wording of ballot measures is frequently convoluted and sometimes nearly unintelligible. In 1996, for instance, the readability level of referenda in Massachusetts and Rhode Island was estimated at the fifteenth-grade (third year of college) level. And sometimes they push the bounds of what merits public debate, as when Alaskans considered a statewide vote on the personal consumption of fish and game.

3. Monkey business. Just ask Timothy Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and sponsor of a school choice initiative he hopes to place on the California fall ballot. Because California law requires that initiative titles and text be approved by the state attorney general before they are voted on, Draper’s conservative measure had to pass muster with California’s attorney general: the very liberal Bill Lockyer, a longtime ally of the California Teachers Association (CTA). The CTA opposes school choice, as do liberals like Lockyer, who view it as undermining inner-city schools by taking away their students (thus eroding schools’ per capita funding). Thus it is no surprise that the attorney general retitled Draper’s initiative to "School Vouchers—State-Funded Private and Religious Education." The change is perfectly legal, but it reeks of politics because the word voucher is poisonous to California voters. Moreover, the phrase "state-funded private and religious education" raises the same conflict—separation of church and state—that prompted a federal court to temporarily shut down Cleveland’s school choice program.

The "Media Filter"

But is all of this cause for consternation? The answer, it seems, is that the beauty of ballot initiatives is in the eye of the beholder. If the cause is deemed worthy by the media, then it receives easy treatment. But those initiatives that offend liberal sensibilities are destined for rough treatment by a predominantly liberal fourth estate.

Initiatives are a truer reflection of public sentiment than any legislative action—or inaction—in state capitals.

Consider that of the approximately 2,000 initiatives voted on in the past century, it is three approved by California voters in the past quarter century that have drawn the lion’s share of media scrutiny and wrath: Proposition 209 (which repealed affirmative action, 1996), Proposition 187 (which addressed illegal immigration, 1994), and Proposition 13 (which lowered property tax rates, 1978). All three measures were approved by near-landslide majorities, yet all three were condemned by the mainstream media as either damaging to government’s ability to provide basic services or as socially divisive.

It seems that ballot initiatives go through two filters—one for the media and one for voters. The voters’ filter is simple, even commonsense, and surprisingly balanced. For example, in different election cycles Californians have passed term limits yet rejected a "none of the above" ballot option. They have approved of medicinal usage of marijuana yet rejected various HMO reforms. They have passed a 50-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes in the name of child development yet rejected a measure that would have made it easier to do even more for children by lowering the threshold for approving local school bonds (see sidebar).

What’s the common thread here? Simple. Voters measure the worth of initiatives, then look at their own circumstances. Then they look at the political establishment’s ability to handle the matter if voters don’t take matters into their own hands.

It’s that latter point—the inability of the political establishment to assume responsibility—that is underestimated with regard to initiatives. States suffer from the same gridlock we see in Washington, D.C.—California being arguably the best example. Why did California voters reinstate the death penalty by ballot? Because a liberal legislature would not. The same goes for illegal immigration and the repeal of affirmative action—two issues that resonated with voters but not liberal lawmakers, who would not touch either matter because each conflicted with their ideological beliefs (and base of support).

Unfortunately, the initiative process does not sit well with the media. When an initiative passes that reporters do not care for, one of two assumptions is made—that voters were duped or are just plain stupid. That’s been the standard explanation for Propositions 187 and 209—the public was tricked into choosing something they didn’t want. How insulting to a majority of Californians.

My suggestion is that rather than bashing the process, journalists should take a closer look at initiatives as a truer reflection of public sentiment than any "legislative action—or inaction—in Washington, D.C., and the state capitals. That begins with the issue of taxes, which the media so far have scoffed at in this election.

Tax Relief for the Masses

It is now an accepted part of American political folklore that the tax-cutting Proposition 13, approved in 1978, set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s ascent to the presidency two years later. But a closer look at the numbers shows that while Reagan was indeed swept into office on a platform of lower taxes and fiscal restraint, the issue of tax cuts did not play when presented in initiative form. In 1980, the first of the two Reagan national landslides, only 13 of the 30 antitax initiatives on state ballots were approved.

One would assume that antitax initiatives would fare even worse today, when education and underperforming schools grab the headlines. However, it’s just the opposite. From 1996 through earlier this year, 8 of 12 antitax measures passed, including Washington state’s landmark I-695 (which slashed the state’s automobile tax to a flat $30 and requires voters to approve any new tax or fee proposed by the legislature).

States suffer from the same gridlock we see in Washington—which is why ballot initiatives are so valuable. They address the unwillingness of the political establishment to respond to the wishes of the public.

For Republicans in general and presidential nominee George W. Bush in particular, this is encouraging news as the general election gets under way. There are 65 antitax measures already on state ballots, with another 15 in the works. If Bush, who has based his candidacy in great part on across-the-board tax relief, can tap into this antitax sentiment, he may find the tailwind he needs to coast to victory.

The media may not like it, but the voters will have spoken. Come to think of it, isn’t that how this is supposed to work?

Standoff in California: Taxes or Schools?

One of the beauties of ballot initiatives is that they often compel voters to make simple, yes-or-no decisions: Do I support lower taxes? Should lawmakers be subject to term limits? Should state law require parental notification for abortion? But what happens when voters have to choose between two concepts, both of which happen to be popular?

That’s the question facing California voters this November when they decide whether to subject local school bonds to a lower passage threshold of 55 percent (instead of the existing two-thirds supermajority). The choice boils down to better schools versus the threat of higher property taxes, and California voters seem to be of two minds.

Proponents of the measure—a spin-off of California’s Proposition 26, which aimed to lower the bond threshold to a mere 50 percent plus one and was defeated by just 180,000 out of 7 million votes cast last March—contend that the lower threshold is necessary to build the new schools and facilities needed to improve California’s public education system.

Opponents of the measure contend that it could boomerang against Californians. Unlike state general obligation bonds, which are supported by California’s general fund (into which all taxpayers pay), schools bonds are local general obligation bonds, which could require a community to raise local property taxes to pay off its debt load. Opponents also note that in California since 1996, roughly 66 percent of all local schools bonds have received the requisite two-thirds supermajority. Three-fourths of school districts that attempted a bond had it approved on its first or second try.

To make things even more interesting, this will be the initial, all-hands-on-deck foray into the world of initiatives by California’s new center of political gravity. Supporters of the school bond measure include Governor Gray Davis, the California Teachers Association, and a coalition of high-tech executives. So deep are this powerful coalition’s pockets that it was able to collect more than one million signatures in less than a month’s time to qualify the initiative for the November ballot. With its huge war chest, the coalition may be able to outspend opponents on the order of 20 to 1.

To date, education reform in California has been relatively pain-free for taxpayers. A booming economy has prompted a flood of new state revenue, giving lawmakers plenty of discretionary funds to direct toward California’s public schools. Because the state’s Proposition 98 guarantees public schools at least 40 percent of the annual state budget, the result has been record spending on education.

But California voters have yet to demonstrate whether they are willing to accept a tax increase—or the threat of higher taxes—to make schools better. The only indication so far has been Proposition 26, the failure of which would indicate that education is not as strong an issue at the polls as it is in public surveys.

Perhaps it is a case of "won’t be fooled again." A dozen years ago, Proposition 98, also supported by the CTA, was put before voters with a similar promise as Proposition 26: invest in education, give us the resources, and we’ll restore accountability to the classroom and restore California’s public schools to their former glory.

A proposition on the November ballot will reveal whether education is as strong an issue at the polls as it is in public opinion surveys.

In the first general election of the twenty-first century, California voters may see public schools on the mend, but the CTA has failed to live up to its Prop. 98 promise of results and accountability. Schools still fare poorly in terms of academic achievement. Moreover, the CTA has gone from an organization interested in better schools to a union with a rigid agenda. While the CTA supports better schools via measures such as Proposition 26, two years previously it fought tooth and nail against Governor Wilson’s Proposition 8, which among other things called for greater accountability through the creation of an office to monitor school performance.

Will Californians this time lower the bond threshold? Odds are that the power and deep pockets of the proponents will win this time around. But they may not find it easy to convince Californians to surrender their fiscally conservative instincts.

— B.W.