Defending Direct Democracy and Defending Taxpayers

vote ballotsThe powers of direct democracy — initiative, referendum and recall — are powerful tools to control slow-moving or corrupt politicians. These powers are enshrined in the California Constitution for reasons that are just as compelling in 2019 as they were in 1911 when Gov. Hiram Johnson, seeking to suppress the absolute control the railroads had over the state Capitol, pushed to give ordinary citizens a “legislative battering ram” — using the language of the Supreme Court — to address issues that for whatever reason the Legislature refuses to address.

Political elites hate the initiative process. From their perspective it allows the great unwashed and unsophisticated to deal with matters such as taxation, victims’ rights, insurance and most importantly political reform. These are issues over which politicians strongly desire to exercise a legislative monopoly.

Like any political process, however, direct democracy can be abused. Some matters are indeed complicated and not well suited to a sound-bite campaign. Also, special interests with a lot of money can overwhelm the airwaves with TV and radio ads to convince a majority of voters (especially in a low-turnout election) to pass something they might later regret. Nonetheless, for taxpayers, direct democracy remains one of the few tools we have to protect ourselves.

Landmark initiative measures such as Propositions 13 and 218 have given taxpayers the kind of protection against greedy government entities that we would never have obtained but for rights granted through direct democracy. But taxpayers must do more than propose initiatives and convince voters to enact them. We must also defend them in court against never-ending assaults. For years, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has maintained a potent litigation capacity with three full-time lawyers and access to dozens more willing to defend not just taxpayer-sponsored initiatives but the very power of direct democracy itself.

And so it is that HJTA finds itself back before the California Supreme Court on an important direct democracy case.

To read the entire column, please click here.

Is Voting for Voting’s Sake a Good Thing?

Voter turnout in California is low. Just three weeks ago, the election held in Los Angeles saw an embarrassing 10 percent turnout. And, of course, the statewide turnout just last November was almost as bad.Irrespective of political affiliation, the immediate reaction among those of us who are politically engaged is that low voter turnout is not good for democracy. But perhaps we should challenge that bit of conventional wisdom. Is voting for voting’s sake really a good thing?

Members of the self-serving political class, made up of politicians and the special interests that support them, complain about the lack of voter participation because they believe they should be seen as patriotically promoting the democratic process. But their faux sincerity is based entirely on whether or not they see a greater political advantage to a higher voter turnout. If they believe that a higher turnout will drive more low information voters, who can be easily persuaded by glossy mailers, they are all for more voters. (At one point it was suggested that Los Angeles should increase turnout by providing those who vote a chance to win cash through a lottery system.) If they don’t think that the additional votes are likely to help them, they will do nothing substantive to actually encourage greater participation.

Then there are the members of the “social engineering” class who are constantly looking after our welfare. Their thinking parallels that of those who want to control how much fat we eat, how much soda we drink and who want to get us out our cars. They know what is best for us, and what is best for us is that we all vote. (Daniel Webster once said that “the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions.”)

From newspaper editors to academics, the “do-gooder” class weighs in on ways to solve this “serious problem” of voter disinterest and will sometimes stoop to promoting gimmicks to gin up turnout. On the Los Angeles ballot was a city charter amendment, which passed, that moves local elections so as to coincide with the state and federal elections that take place in even-numbered years. Almost no consideration was given to the fact that local issues will now become buried under the publicity surrounding races for president, governor, Congress and the Legislature. And if even-numbered years make such a big difference, why were the elections in 2014, an even-numbered year, ignored by so many voters?

There is no one reason why more eligible voters don’t participate. Some say that voting makes no difference, so why bother. Others may actually be exercising their right not to vote because they simply don’t see the need. Others might intelligently conclude that they are not personally informed enough and are satisfied with the decisions made by those who are more informed.

Let’s just hope that the scolds and manipulators will relax and let citizens exercise their constitutional rights as they see fit. Just as it is legally and morally wrong to prevent citizens from voting, we would find it extremely unpleasant to live with a system under which voting became compulsory.

Don’t believe that could happen? In the 2002 Iraqi presidential elections the turnout was 100 percent and Saddam Hussein received every one of the 11,445,638 votes. We suspect that many of those “participants” would have enjoyed the right not to vote.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This piece originally appeared on HJTA.org