The Promises and Pitfalls of Ballot Initiatives in the US

Photo Credit: CA Votes

This is the second of two posts by HKS MPP’18 James Pagano exploring the promises and pitfalls of direct democracy. In this post, James examines California’s experience with ballot initiatives – exposing where they are vulnerable and suggesting how they can be used to empower citizens and strengthen democracy. Read James’ first post here

 

By James Pagano

In my previous post, I provided an overview of some of the benefits and dangers posed by direct democracy, with a look at Latin America. In this post, I shift my focus to the United States, where elections are much more decentralized and no mechanism for a national referendum exists. Nonetheless, over the past few decades, ballot initiatives have become increasingly popular at the state and local level and have provided citizens an important mechanism for reforming long stagnant laws and amending state constitutions. Much like in Latin America, however, the U.S. has had a mixed experience with direct democracy. While ballot initiatives have allowed citizens to push through important reforms, citizen initiatives have also constrained legislatures and provided another pathway for money to influence policy. California’s particularly extensive experience with citizen initiatives can help to inform a better understanding of the appropriate use of ballot initiatives in the U.S.

States began to discuss direct democracy at the end of the 19th century, with South Dakota becoming the first adopter of ballot initiatives in 1898. Other states followed suit, and by 1918 nineteen states allowed initiatives. By 2010, more than 2000 proposals had appeared on ballots across the United States. Close to 40% have passed. As of early 2017, twenty-four states allow ballot initiatives and 70% of all American live in either a city or state that allows citizen initiatives.

Research on ballot initiatives and their policy outcomes tell a mixed story. Analysis of results between 1970 and 2000, show that states with ballot initiatives reduced government spending, decentralized authority, and relied more heavily on fees than taxes when compared to non-initiative states. However, between 1902 and 1942 states with initiatives increased spending.

California has become the most prominent example of a state that relies heavily on statewide ballot initiatives, having held 371 initiatives since 1904. California’s experience demonstrates the mix of challenges and opportunities posed by citizen initiatives.

 

Ballot initiatives do not solve the issue of money in politics

A primary fear of opponents of ballot initiatives is the role of wealthy donors and special interest groups. California has had several experiences with initiatives funded by wealthy special interest groups. These initiatives have had mixed success. An initiative in 1956 designed to loosen regulation on oil and gas production and funded by a group of oil companies ultimately failed, despite massive campaign funding by the oil industry. In contrast, an early 1960s initiative sponsored by theater owners successfully banned cable television! The move, which was clearly an anticompetitive effort to drive down competition in entertainment, was later ruled unconstitutional.

While these examples may seem dated, they also prove that ballot initiatives are not immune from the outsize role of money in U.S. politics. California’s experience shows that states should adopt clear rules on disclosure and tracking of funding for these citizen initiatives, probably erring on the side of restrictive regulations around spending.

Does direct democracy undermine representative democracy?

Passed in 1978, Proposition 13 limited the ability of the state legislature to raise property taxes by more than 2% per year without a supermajority’s approval. It is also the state’s most controversial ballot initiative. Proponents of this initiative argue that Californians were struggling to pay constantly rising taxes, and that with almost 65% support, Proposition 13 served to check a profligate legislature. For their part, opponents believe Proposition 13 hamstrung the legislature’s ability to respond to fiscal crises and provided de facto veto power to the minority party.

The legacy of Proposition 13 remains complicated, though a majority of Californians still support it. That said, the initiative process more broadly has often frustrated the State Legislature (which also had its terms limited by citizen initiative). At times, the legislative branch has felt that citizens have inadvertently undermined the mechanisms of accountability critical to a successful representative democracy. A clearer balance between what issues can and cannot be decided by ballot initiative would help address concerns that direct democracy can harm the quality of representation or the jobs of representatives.

 

Ballot initiatives as a solution to gerrymandering

The ballot initiatives in California also empowered voters to change one of the most harmful and longstanding practices in American democracy, gerrymandering. In 2008, Californians voted to remove state redistricting power from the legislature and instead delegate it to an independent and bipartisan commission of citizens, later expanding this commission to oversee U.S. House districts as well. As a result, California enjoys some of the most competitive and equitable districts in the country.

Gerrymandering has afflicted the United States for more than 200 years, at least in part because state legislatures have a strong vested interest in picking their own voters. That self-interest, coupled with the difficult task of amending constitutions, has made meaningful redistricting reform rare, but California solved the problem. By putting a constitutional and deeply political issue directly to the people, Californians improved the quality of their democracy,

The example of redistricting reform in California alone provides a strong case in support of citizen initiatives. While they can be abused and are subject to outside influence, initiatives also provide citizens an important lever to address constitutional and quasi-constitutional issues. Combined with careful regulation, citizen initiatives can play an important part of a strong and functioning democratic system.

 

James Pagano is a second-year Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Research Assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance. He previously worked at Democracy International (DI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on a series of international programs aimed at improving the administration of elections and the quality of democratic governance around the world. At Harvard, James continues to study voting rights and electoral policy and also works as an Associate Editor for the Kennedy School Review.

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