In summary

Californians on the left, center and right kvetch about initiatives, but they also value their state constitutional right to make law directly.

By Wayne Pacelle

Citizens are wise to hand off the day-to-day work of lawmaking to their elected officials, but they rightly guard their own, more limited claims to direct lawmaking. Through the initiative process, citizens can bless overdue reforms and, in some cases, even bolder ones typically outside the range of motion of the Legislature. As importantly, it gives them more reasons to vote, while deepening their level of civic engagement and empowering them to take a more active role in shaping the path forward for their state.

Re “One upside of the coronavirus shutdown, maybe? Fewer voter initiatives”; March 27, 2020; CalMatters

COVID-19 has resulted in a near cessation of signature gathering for citizen initiatives this election cycle. Stay-at-home and social-distancing policies make the requirement for face-to-face signature gathering next to impossible. And while no sane person ever wished for the suffering wrought by COVID-19, the derailing of the initiative process is being celebrated as a small beneficial outcome of the crisis.   

Californians on the left, center and right kvetch about initiatives, but they also value their state constitutional right to make law directly. In other western states, however, the movement against the initiative process has been much more successful in throwing up roadblocks to the process.  

Critics complain about wealthy interests buying their way onto the ballot and conducting deceptive advertising. But special interests apply these same influences. 

And too many initiatives?  Let’s remember, there are thousands of bills introduced every session in Sacramento and lawmakers must vote on a blizzard of legislation and amendments. If they are able to read a small portion, it would be unusual. Instead, they take guidance from party leaders, staffers, lobbyists and others. Perfect deliberation it is not.

And the reality is, the backers of ballot measures rarely get past the signature-gathering stage. More than 95 percent can’t get the number of signatures needed to progress to the next stage.  

Of the dozen or so measures that get to the ballot, typically fewer than 40% pass.

The initiative process was rightly conceived more than a century ago as a safety valve when representative government malfunctions. I’ve led measures in California to ban the use of cruel steel-jawed leghold traps, to stop trophy hunting and to protect farm animals from extreme confinement – all reforms that legislators would not pass because of the inordinate influence of the gun and agriculture lobbies.

A sparse November 2020 ballot when it comes to citizen initiatives is something Californians can handle. But it would be a bad outcome if this circumstance became the norm. 

Citizens are wise to hand off the day-to-day work of lawmaking to their elected officials, but they rightly guard their own, more limited claims to direct lawmaking. Through the initiative process, citizens can bless overdue reforms and, in some cases, even bolder ones typically outside the range of motion of the Legislature. As importantly, it gives them more reasons to vote, while deepening their level of civic engagement and empowering them to take a more active role in shaping the path forward for their state.

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