In summary

California should create a citizens’ initiative review process to weigh in independently for the public interest when special interests are battling it out.

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By Nathan Gardels, Special to CalMatters

Nathan Gardels is executive adviser to Think Long Committee for California and co-founder of the Berggruen Institute,

  Lea este artículo en español.

As far back as 2009, then California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron George asked, “Has the voter initiative now become the tool of the very type of special interests it was intended to control, and an impediment to the effective functioning of a true democratic process?”

That question has been answered in spades by this most recent election as Uber, Lyft and other like businesses spent a record $200 million plus in a referendum, Proposition 22, to overturn legislation that would make their independent contractors into employees. The bail bond companies spent more than $11 million on Proposition 25 to overturn legislation that would have ended the social injustice of cash bail.

In the case of Prop. 22, first it was the influence of the organized special interests of the labor unions in the Legislature that blocked any compromise with the ride-hailing companies and their allies – compromises, it should be noted, that would have included progressive innovations such as portable benefits and sector-wide bargaining. 

Then it was the turn of the organized special interests of the deep-pocketed companies whose business model was at stake to bolster the coffers of the persuasion industry and, essentially, buy votes. For the chump change they spent on the election, the market valuation of Uber and Lyft was up $13 billion the next day. 

What role did California’s citizens who were supposed to be given a voice by this practice of direct democracy have in setting the agenda, placing these measures on the ballot and expressing their concerns? Answer: none. This is the central scandal in California politics besides which all else pales.

Clearly it is time for a change that only seems radical in the context of how fundamentally the purpose of the citizen’s ballot initiative has been perverted: Give direct democracy back to the citizens.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court has sanctioned money as free speech, the only feasible course forward at the moment is to create a citizens’ initiative review process so that a disinterested body indicative of the public as a whole can weigh in independently for the public interest when special interests are battling it out on the ballot.

This idea has been piloted in other states, notably Oregon. There, a random sampling of citizens fitting the profile of the state in terms of race, gender, region and so on, is chosen to review ballot measures. Like a jury, they hear from experts on the impact of the measure and from pro and con partisans. They then compose a 750-word statement in plain language honestly and objectively listing the pros and cons and their implication for the voter. This appears in the voter pamphlet mailed out to voters.

Since California politics is far more dominated by initiatives than any other state, this process should go a step further here. To be effective, this body should be sponsored and housed within the office of the California Secretary of State, which runs elections. The citizen review panel’s summary should then appear on the ballot itself as a kind of Good Housekeeping seal the public knows they can trust amid the onslaught of biased public relations with which special interest money showers the airwaves and social media sites.

In 2008, Californians gave the direct power to draw electoral districts to the citizens by creating the California Citizens’ Redistricting Commission that ended gerrymandering instead of letting partisan legislators draw districts.

Why not do the same with the initiative process which is, after all, supposed to be the people’s tool? If direct democracy can be bought by those with the deepest pockets, then it is not democracy at all.

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