Direct Democracy in California: Meaningful Civic Engagement?

Before I moved here, all I really knew of Golden State politics was Arnold Schwarzenegger, marijuana and Proposition 8. In my first semester as a graduate student at Cal’s Goldman School of Public Policy, my understanding of the political landscape—specifically the effects of direct democracy—increased immensely. I worked with a group of my classmates to raise awareness and try to do something about Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot proposition that has had a serious impact on California’s fiscal health. The proposition was sold to voters as a protection for homeowners against sharply increasing interest rates, which, hey—who doesn’t want that, right? However, a number of provisions (including severe restrictions on increased or new state and local taxes) have had dire, and, for many California voters, unexpected consequences.

My work on this project in graduate school led to involvement with the campaign to pass Proposition 25. Though it is a far cry from fully addressing the negative impacts of Prop 13, Prop 25 did help to end some of the gridlock in the legislature, and allowed, in 2011, for passage of the first on-time budget in 25 years. And last year voters passed Proposition 30, increasing state income and sales taxes to stave off deep “trigger” cuts to schools, and continuing to chip away at the negative effects of Prop 13. Prop 25 and Prop 30 were absolutely steps in the right direction, and I’m grateful to California voters for having passed them. But I feel less positively about our system of direct democracy as a whole.

Taking a look at the past few election cycles in California, it’s hard to deny that our system needs some serious reform. Specifically, we need to find solutions to address the related problems of voter education and the influence of money in initiative campaigns. As we saw with Prop 13, passing seemingly positive ballot initiatives may have consequences voters never imagined or intended. Though many assert the fiscal effects of Prop 13 could not have been foreseen, there are aspects of the proposition (namely the restrictions on revenue increases) that were simply not well known to voters. This lack of education may have contributed to passage of a proposition that included provisions voters may not have approved. And even given the advent of the Internet, and greater availability of information, voter education is still a problem. A recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California entitled Improving California’s Democracy highlights the fact that “…voters lack basic knowledge about the important fiscal decisions that they are being asked to make.”

The same report calls for greater transparency in our initiative process. Last year, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent both for and against California ballot initiatives ranging from tax increases to auto insurance regulation to death penalty repeal to genetically modified food labeling. But, especially in the wake of Citizens United, determining who’s funding what can prove to be quite difficult. And with so much money funneled into ballot initiative campaigns, what began as a populist move for social and political reform is now just as driven by money (both private and corporate) as any other political campaign.

As someone who clearly values citizen participation, I wish I could be more supportive of and have a stronger belief in the opportunities we have as Californians to engage directly in our democracy. But the system as it is now is deeply flawed. In order for this direct democracy to truly represent voters and truly be an exercise in meaningful civic engagement, we must address the issues of voter education and the influence of money and special interests in our ballot initiative system.

~Danielle Love, San Francisco Bay Area Site Director

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.