Here’s whom to thank—or blame—for California’s version of direct democracy

California expects voters to make a lot of big choices. We elect representatives, the governor and judges, but we also decide the future of the gas tax, how dialysis clinics are paid and if egg-laying chickens need more space.

Those questions and eight others will be asked of voters on this November’s ballot as part of an initiative process that is among the most powerful in the world.

The responsibility leaves a lot of California voters, including Cloud Backus, overwhelmed. “Because I’m not that smart!” she laughed. And, while the longtime teacher might have downplayed her qualifications, it’s a familiar sentiment.

Most of us have a hard enough time deciding what to have for dinner on a nightly basis. How is the average person supposed to judge the pros and cons of employment law for ambulance workers (also on the ballot)?

Historian William Deverell at the University of Southern California said the system we see in action today might be unrecognizable to those who fought for it more than a century ago. It “has grown quite unwieldy and crude in ways that have perverted the initial vision,” he said.

California wasn’t the first state to embrace initiatives, but Deverell said we did it on a scale that made us direct-democracy trail blazers. The movement was born in the wake of the gilded age, when a small cadre of super wealthy industrialists pulled all the political strings.

“In California, the force that everyone points to is the railroad,” said Deverell. “It’s a perfect enemy in many respects. It’s distant, it’s powerful, it’s rich and owns all the land.”

The railroad, it turns out, also owned California politicians—that is until Hiram Johnson came along.

At the turn of the century, Johnson achieved renown as an attorney in San Francisco fighting graft and political corruption. “He had gotten a reputation as a no nonsense, honest political fighter for good,” said Deverell.

In 1910 Johnson ran for governor on a platform of opposition to special interests like the railroad. “And his race then is sculpted into a kind of Goliath versus David phenomenon where Hiram Johnson is cast as the David going after the corporate behemoths, the Goliath, that was the Southern Pacific,” said Deverell.

Like the Old Testament hero, Johnson was successful. He won the governor’s seat and ushered in a set of constitutional amendments to wrest power from moneyed interests and put it in the hands of the people with the initiative process.

It all sounds very righteous, but according to journalist Joe Mathews, who wrote the book “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It,” Johnson was no saint. “He was loud, bombastic, angry, prone to dark moods, personalized disputes,” said Mathews.

And Johnson’s personal foibles may have had an enduring legacy on our democracy.

“He was a fighter and he saw in initiatives, not some way to bring the people into the process,” said Mathews. “He saw them as tools for fights. He sold it as, ‘It’ll be like a gun in a man’s hand.’”

One of Johnson’s primary targets was his own father, a state legislator who’d made his career as just the kind of politician Johnson railed against. “His father campaigned against him and said, ‘don’t elect this guy,’” said Mathews.

So when Johnson took power and it came time to craft the initiative process, he made it extra difficult for the Legislature to fiddle with. Once an initiative passes in California, the Legislature can’t touch it, even to make simple, logical improvements, unless the initiative specifically stipulates they can. Otherwise, any change has to go back through the process for a vote by the people.

“They kept the initiative process totally separate from the legislative process, which his father and his friends controlled,” said Mathews. He thinks that part of what explains California’s extreme, inflexible direct democracy systems is Johnson’s “daddy issues.”

In fact, three of the initiatives on this year’s ballot are revisions or reactions to previously passed ones, which leaves many voters like Cloud Backus thoroughly confused.

“There are many unintended consequences. And then we have another initiative to correct the errors,” said Cloud Backus. “It feels like a crap shoot.”

Editors’ note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the name of Joe Mathews.

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