Californians Assess Referendum System

LAST November, Mississippi voters amended their state constitution to provide for an indirect initiative - the first state in nearly two decades to do so. Similar movements to bring the initiative to South Carolina, New Jersey, Louisiana, and elsewhere are also underway in response to the reluctance of state legislatures to adopt limits on legislative terms. Yet even as many states are experiencing a renewed interest in the virtues of direct democracy, Californians are beginning to wonder if the citizen initiative has worn out its welcome.

In California there is a danger that popular dissatisfaction with the initiative process will lead to a significant dilution of its power or elimination of the direct initiative entirely.

The modification or even the elimination of the initiative power is a possibility in the Golden State in the l990s. This would be a tragic mistake, for the citizen initiative remains, in the words of William Jennings Bryan, "the most effective means yet proposed for giving the people absolute control over their government." Keystone of America's progressive experiment with direct democracy, the initiative places the ultimate responsibility for governing where it rightly belongs - with the people.

Contrary to some popular notions, the initiative does not diminish the virtues of representative government. Rather, these virtues are enhanced by giving the people a means to keep elected representatives honest, responsive, and responsible. A constitutional right in slightly less than half the states, the citizen initiative is a precious vehicle for expression of the popular will and a potent check against legislative tyranny or ineptitude.

YET, after the last few general elections in California, criticism of the initiative process has become widespread and vehement. There are simply too many initiatives on the ballot, say critics, and many are ambiguous, poorly-written, and on occasion contradictory.

As a consequence, and contrary to the expectations of progressive reformers, fewer citizens turnout to cast ballots for initiatives than vote in either gubernatorial or presidential elections; increasing the prospects for minority rule.

Finally, critics allege that the escalating use of initiatives in California has shifted the burden of legislating from the legislature to the initiative process. Greater reliance on the initiative process to address controversial policy issues, has become just one more way for legislators to avoid responsibility for making difficult political decisions.

These are all serious problems which merit remedy. However, the initiative process can - indeed, must - be remedied without diluting the initiative power. Reform should focus on how initiatives are brought to the electorate for a decision, rather than on what initiatives may be about. In particular, reforms should improve the writing of initiatives and the quality of voter information provided about them, regulate the professional collection of signatures to qualify initiatives, limit the number of initi atives which may appear on any one ballot, and schedule all initiatives which entail a constitutional amendment only during gubernatorial or presidential elections.

These reforms will begin to address many of the problems identified above without unduly constraining the ability of citizens to use the initiative power as intended by California's reformers.

Given all the other problems confronting California's governor and the state legislature, initiative reform isn't likely to happen any time soon.

However, widespread public dissatisfaction with the initiative is only another general election away, when voters will once again be bombarded by an abundance of ballot choices. As the debate takes shape over how to best reform the initiative in California, as it may in other initiative states as well, "Save the initiative, reform the process" should be the standard by which all reform proposals are evaluated, judged, and enacted.

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