SAN FRANCISCO — It was once the common man's answer to the high rollers and special interests of politics.
But today the initiative process - putting issues directly on the ballot - has a different character, say critics and backers. In fact, nowhere else in politics do so few spend so much, with so few restraints, in an attempt to directly influence public policy.
Already, the forces behind ballot initiatives are marshaling for battles in a number of states this fall over tax cuts, education reform, gun control, and healthcare.
But the average voter is increasingly on the sidelines in determining what battles will be fought, say a number of experts. More and more, those decisions are in the hands of high-tech millionaires, wealthy financiers, and national organizations.
These groups have the resources to launch campaigns that, by comparison, can make running for office look positively cheap and changing policies legislatively, agonizingly slow.
Are school vouchers a good idea? Voters in California and Michigan will decide this November, but not necessarily because it is the preeminent education issue in those states. Rather, because wealthy venture capitalist Timothy Draper and Amway co-founder Rich DeVos spent part of their fortunes to put that issue on those states' ballots.
Is it time to decriminalize the use of marijuana for medical use? Wealthy New York financier George Soros has helped put the issue before voters in a number of states. Voters in Colorado and Nevada will get to decide this year.
And where does animal protection rate with voters? Whatever its relative importance, it's been put before them with growing frequency - and success - thanks to efforts by the Humane Society of the United States.
There are no spending limits, and the process of qualifying for the ballot is virtually just a commercial transaction. It's no wonder experts like Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies call the initiative process "the biggest bang for the buck" in all of American politics.
In California, for instance, more money was spent in 1998 on a single initiative campaign concerning gambling on Indian reservations than the entire amount spent on lobbying the state legislature that session on its thousands of bills.
The trend of more money and wealthier players in initiative politics has its echo in the longstanding debate over the role of money in electing people to office.
But the influence of money in the initiative process has special intensity because the process itself is controversial.
Initiative critics like author and political analyst David Broder see money as just the newest flaw in a dangerous approach to making public policy. In "Democracy Derailed," Mr. Broder writes that the initiative process threatens to "subvert the American system of government," because it bypasses the normal checks and balances in the legislative process.
Mr. Stern is a believer in the initiative process, but he too admits that the onslaught of money pouring into the process is worrisome. "If you have money, you can get just about anything on the ballot. If you don't have a lot of money, it's near impossible, no matter what your level of support," he says. "The process is increasingly not a reflection of grass-roots sentiment."
Of course, putting something on the ballot doesn't ensure passage. In fact, in the 24 states that allow initiatives, only about 40 percent of measures put on the ballot usually pass.
And polls show that voters are seldom fooled into voting for something they later regret, says Stern.
California's late 1970s tax revolt - Proposition 13 - is still widely supported by voters, according to opinion surveys. So, too, are initiatives that ended affirmative action and implemented term limits.
But what worries some analysts is what doesn't get on the ballot because of the financial barriers. To be put on a ballot in most states, an initiative needs to have a certain number of signatures, usually based on a percent of the state's voters.
Democracy - at $2.50 a signature
While that formula may once have been meant to demonstrate popular support for a measure, today gathering signatures is usually turned over to businesses that specialize in the process and guarantee success - at a price. In California, for instance, it costs about $2.50 per signature to quality an issue for the ballot.
"There's no doubt you're seeing a growing influence of rich individuals" in the initiative process, says Dane Waters of the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington. But Mr. Waters says that's partly because the costs are being driven up by efforts by legislatures, and even the courts, to clip the wings of the initiative process.
Speaking of the wealthy movers and shakers in the initiative world, Waters says " they are the only ones with the ability to make things happen." He regards that as preferable to letting legislatures be the only game in town.
While the US Supreme Court has affirmed the right of the initiative process to function without spending limits, lower courts have increasingly made it more difficult to get issues on the ballot.
Already this year in Colorado, Oregon, and Arizona - three states where use of initiatives has exploded in recent years - courts have blocked some initiatives from the ballot because they violated single-subject rules prohibiting trying to do more than one thing in a single initiative.
Nationwide, Waters says, about 70 initiatives will appear on state ballots this November. That's down from 102 in 1996, the most recent presidential election year.
States crack down
Waters says 1996 may well turn out to have been the high-water mark for ballot initiatives. "There has been a backlash by state legislatures," he says, with many doing things like shortening the length of time for gathering signatures to inhibit the initiative process.
Wyoming, following in the footsteps of Idaho and Utah, is attempting to require that initiatives not only have enough qualified signatures, but also that those signatures come from voters geographically representative of the state as a whole. Arizona Gov. Jane Hull said recently it might be time to limit voter initiatives in that state.
Stern says initiative activity is increasingly being hemmed in by the courts and legislatures. But he sees other reasons why activity may be slower this election cycle.
A healthy economy and subsiding antigovernment sentiment have reduced some of the impetus for ballot initiatives, he says, though certain issues are perennially popular.
One is tax cuts, which will come before voters in a variety of measures in Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington.
But amid a decline in the overall numbers, analysts like Waters say the initiatives most likely to disappear are poorly funded grass-roots efforts.
"Real mom-and-pop initiatives are diminishing quickly," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society