Taking the strings off ballot initiatives

High court decision blocks state efforts to keep 'specialinterests' out of the process.

Direct democracy through ballot initiative is already a powerful force in US politics. Though practiced in only 24 states, it has propelled a number of movements - such as medical marijuana and assisted suicide - from local to national status. Yet the initiative process grew significantly more potent this week as a result of a Supreme Court ruling. Several analysts say the decision, beyond outlawing certain specific controls on ballot measures, will blunt broader so-called reform efforts by sending a message that the court prefers a relatively unfettered process. The issue was a Colorado requirement that people gathering signatures to qualify ballot initiatives had to be registered voters. Not so, said the court, ruling that such requirements unduly restrict free speech. Just another big-money contest? The case hit at the center of a growing concern that the initiative process has become an overly money-driven tool that is contrary to its intended role as a safety valve for voters when elected officials are unresponsive. To make the process less a hired-gun phenomenon, many states have restricted who can gather signatures, often by requiring that they be registered voters. Critics worry that without reform, initiatives will become yet another turnoff for a dwindling voter population. Though begun during the Progressive Era as a grass-roots way for citizens to legislate, initiatives are now nearly always qualified for the ballot by commercial signature-gathering firms. Many will virtually guarantee ballot qualification for a price, usually about 25 cents to $2 per signature. Money is also more involved in ballot-measure campaigns. California, for instance, set a new high-water mark last November of nearly $200 million in cumulative expenditures on seven initiatives. Still, some experts say the common perception that money completely controls the initiative process is false. Recent research in California by Elisabeth Gerber, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, shows money is important but not decisive. As she puts it, "even with extravagant spending, broad-based public support" of an issue remains critical for its passage. She divides initiative activists into two categories, citizen groups and economic groups. Spending is most potent in defeating measures, which accounts for about 80 percent of economic groups' efforts, says Ms. Gerber. While special-interest groups seldom get initiatives passed that are against the public interest, their deep pockets can strongly help defeat citizen-backed initiatives. To some, that means citizens have lost much of what the process was meant to provide. California is the nation's 800-pound gorilla in ballot initiatives, and its growing use of initiatives is felt across the country. Over the past 20 years, ballot measures here have grown to the point that "the most significant legislation now comes through the initiative process," says Craig Hollman of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. Affirmative action, property taxes, and bilingual education are just a few of the issues decided by ballot referendum instead of legislators. Already qualified for the 2000 ballot in California is a "definition of marriage" measure that would recognize marriages in the state only between men and women. Popularity may corrode without reform Voters show overwhelming support for the initiative process. A survey just published by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found 75 percent favor solving important problems through initiatives rather than relying on the governor or state legislature. Yet in other polls, an equal number also express anxiety about some elements of the process. "Eight out of 10 believe initiatives usually reflect the concerns of organized, special interests; 8 out of 10 find the ballot wording too complicated or confusing," says Mark Baldassare, survey director at PPIC. Groups like the California League of Women Voters are developing reform packages that may eventually be submitted to voters. But the court ruling "is a clear signal ... that free-speech interests are almost always preeminent," says Dave Magleby, a political scientist at Brigham Young University in Utah. The decision will directly impact close to half the states that allow ballot initiatives, says Jenny Drage of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seven states passed reform measures in November. In Mississippi, a ballot measure requiring that signature gatherers be state residents is already being contested in a federal district court.

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