Those Pesky Ballot Propositions - Is This Any Way to Run a Country?

"Tyranny of the majority!" James Madison yelped about a government run by direct democracy, ballot initiatives, referendums, propositions -- mob rule! And he's the guy who actually wrote the Constitution.

"Yes, they're often misused, but California will never give them up and they can be effective," says Bob Hertzberg, astute politician and former Speaker of the California Assembly, and he's the one who had to shape public policy into law.

Whether you find them offensive or necessary, ballot initiatives and referendums tend to spread like kudzu across the electoral landscape when city and state governing bodies can't, or wont, get the job done they're being paid to do.

While referendums are those measures put on the ballot by the legislatures when they're stuck in gridlock, initiatives are those propositions that originate from we folk, the people, through petition -- usually signed or ignored outside supermarkets. Initiatives have been big in California since populist governor Hiram Johnson started the process as a counter the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad oligarchy that dominated state government in 1911. Back then, it was like a scene from Frankenstein when torch bearing, angry town-folk storm the bastions to destroy the beast.

Political vigilantism works in a fictional black and white world. Deciding whether to 'increase the "rainy day" budget stabilization fund' in a state with the seventh largest economy in the world like California, requires a little more, uh, attention.

And there's the pickle. We are being asked to make far reaching decisions we are not qualified to make at all -- to understand the complexities, context and consequences these initiatives require, then decide whether they should be the law of the land, or not.

Ever tried reading one of these puppies? '.....helps balance state budget by amending the Mental Health Act Services Act, Proposition 63 of 2004.' You remember Prop 63, don't you? '...transfer funds, for two years, to pay for mental health services....fiscal impact: State General Fund savings of about $230 million annually for two years' Hey, saving money, terrific, but wait, '...corresponding reduction in funding available for Mental Health Services Act program,' Uh, you mean, you're actually taking away money for mental health services?

Even the people who are supposed to understand them, don't. "I'm shocked and appalled how many legislators actually understand what they're voting on," says a bemused Dan Mitchell, Professor Emeritus, of Management and Public Policy at UCLA.

Is this what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they set up shop? "No," says Mitchell. "These issues are too important to be decided this way," and yet, we Americans have pragmatism embedded in our DNA. When the existing system isn't delivering, we look for another way. Former Speaker Hertzberg points to California's 1978, now legendary, Prop 13 as an example of what can be achieved when citizens storm the voting booth to slay the monster, in this case, Draconian property taxes.

Unfortunately, "Prop 13 was the last true ground-up initiative," laments Mitchell. "It's not really a bunch of citizens working together any more, not the town meeting writ large we tend to think it is," he continues. What he means is: to qualify to get on the ballot, we town-folk need to round up at least a million signatures, which means we have to hire firms who charge $1 to $2 per signature. Ouch. Then we have to spend many millions more to run our media campaigns. Double ouch.

Hertzberg acknowledges abuses of the system and believes many legislators see the ballot measure as an 'instrument to manipulate the electorate.' Which brings to mind incumbent California governor Pete Wilson's 1994 successful re-election landslide against Kathleen Brown when Wilson's campaign created anti-immigration and racially charged Affirmative Action quota propositions that turned out a lot of scared and angry voters.

So, why are we still being asked to do the job we pay our elected representatives to do? UCLA's Mitchell does see a benefit to the initiative system. If we keep systematically replacing experienced law makers with inexperienced ones, he sees propositions as a counterweight to these term limits. Ironic concept, isn't it? We, unqualified people, asked to make important decisions because we don't trust our unqualified representatives to do it. Most bewildering.

So, again, why do we keep doing this? Because it works. Because we do not live in a symmetrical either-or-world. Because it's not a question of who's right or wrong -- Madison or Hertzberg. Because 'win' or 'lose' is good framing for story telling but a very limiting assumption for governing leaving no room for what is possible, or, what can be done. The choice can sometimes be either-AND. Paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald, the test of a first rate system is the ability to hold two opposite ideas in mind at the same time and not allow just one definition of a situation to constrict the range of other options to consider. Flawed as propositions are, we'll just have to muddle through, carry our torches, storm the voting booths and 'increase "rainy day" budget stabilization fund -- or not.