A Start to Reforming Our Dysfunctional Ballot Measure System

California is the only state in the country where legislation passed by the voters can only be amended by going back to the voters with yet another ballot measure.
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Two of the most common questions I'm asked as an elected official are "Why do you make us vote on so many things?" and "Why doesn't the Board of Supervisors do its job and pass legislation without asking us to pass it for you?" Last Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors placed a charter amendment I'm sponsoring on the November ballot -- a measure that will start us on the long road of reforming our ballot measure system.

My proposal deals with the inflexibility of ballot measures once they're passed. California is the only state in the country where legislation passed by the voters can only be amended by going back to the voters with yet another ballot measure. No matter how much time has passed, no matter how small or large the change, no matter how outdated a provision, no matter the consensus for changing a measure, once the voters have adopted legislation, the legislation cannot be amended by our legislature.

The same is true in San Francisco -- unless a ballot measure provides that it can be amended by the Board of Supervisors (and ballot measures rarely provide for this), once they are adopted, they are frozen in time. And, because going back to the voters with an amendment is a significant undertaking -- requiring the mounting of an electoral campaign -- people who see flaws in voter-adopted legislation typically don't bother trying to amend it.

This permanent unamendability of voter-adopted legislation isn't the only dysfunctionality in our ballot measure system. For example, it's too easy to put things on the ballot. Our Board of Supervisors places ballot measures on issues that should be addressed by the Board itself, and bizarre ballot measures -- like converting Alcatraz into a "peace center" and banning circumcision -- find their way onto the ballot by voter signature. In addition, money tends to dominate many ballot measure campaigns, both in gathering signatures and campaign advertising. And, we've grown addicted to ballot-box budgeting -- putting budget priorities in stone and in a vacuum, without adequately considering how setting aside money for one worthy service impacts other equally worthy services.

Despite the many problems with our ballot measure system, reform starts with one small step, and my proposal takes that first step by making the system more flexible. It does so by gradually making some ballot measures amendable by the Board of Supervisors as part of the normal legislative process. It would apply to ordinances or policy statements placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors or the mayor. It would not apply to any initiative placed on the ballot by voter signature.

This proposal will reduce the incentive for the Board and mayor to place ordinances on the ballot that we should be handling through the legislative process. No longer will supervisors and mayors have an incentive to bypass the legislative process by proposing ballot legislation that then becomes frozen in time.

If the voters approve this measure, then after the voters adopt an ordinance, for the first three years, the Board will not be able touch the measure. For the next four years, the Board will be able to amend or repeal the measure with a 2/3 vote (8 Supervisors out of 11). After seven years, the measure will be treated like any other piece of legislation and will be amendable or repealable.

This proposal won't fix our ballot measure system in one fell swoop, but it starts us in the right direction. I look forward to a robust discussion this fall and beyond.

Scott Wiener is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, representing District 8. His website is www.scottwiener.com.

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