The Dysfunctionality of Direct Democracy in California

In the midst of California’s prolonged decline, it has become fashionable of late for fatalists to pronounce the state “ungovernable.” If that’s true, it took some doing. Not only is California a state where the government has contemplated regulating everything from the sale of Mylar balloons to whether high school students can buy Gatorade, it’s also a place where everyone gets to govern—thanks to a robust system of direct democracy.

Golden State voters can approve or reject public-policy changes at the ballot box through the use of the initiative and referendum. They can also remove unpopular elected officials with the less frequently employed recall, made famous when it chased out Governor Gray Davis in 2003. While nearly half of U.S. states have an initiative process of some kind, nowhere is it as central to the political process as in California, where, in 2010 alone, 14 issues appeared on the ballot. As a result, voters constitute a de facto fourth branch of government. This convoluted structure is no passing fancy, either: 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the initiative, the referendum, and the recall.

These measures were introduced in the salad days of the early Progressive movement, when California Governor Hiram Johnson (who would eventually serve as Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate on the Bull Moose presidential ticket of 1912) pressed for their implementation as a firewall against political domination by special interests—particularly those of the well-heeled railroads. Johnson’s defense of the proposals, delivered in his 1911 inaugural address, remains the best articulation of the rationale for California’s direct democracy:

I commend to you the proposition that, after all, the initiative and the referendum depend on our confidence in the people and in their ability to govern. The opponents of direct legislation and the recall, however they may phrase their opposition, in reality believe the people cannot be trusted. On the other hand, those of us who espouse these measures do so because of our deep-rooted belief in popular government, and not only in the right of the people to govern, but in their ability to govern; and this leads us logically to the belief that if the people have the right, the ability, and the intelligence to elect, they have as well the right, ability, and intelligence to reject or to recall.

While Johnson’s thesis has had its detractors in the century since direct democracy took hold in California, the most powerful rebuttal may have predated the progressive governor by over a century. Writing inFederalist No. 10, James Madison contrasted the ideal of direct democracy with that of a republic, noting that the latter could “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.”

For the average Californian, Madison’s exhortation of republican virtues may sound naive. Far from being perceived as stewards of “the public good,” the state legislature’s most recent approval ratings have hovered around 14 percent—and that’s an improvement from last year, when they reached single digits for the first time in history. By contrast, recent polling by the Public Policy Institute of California puts public approval of the initiative process at a hearty 75 percent. Does the ineffectiveness of the state legislature prove the need for direct democracy? Or is it the initiative process itself that renders the Golden State’s elected officials inert?

The ability to resolve thorny policy issues at the ballot box has clearly acted as a safety valve when politicians seemed to be ignoring public discontent. That was the story of Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative restricting property taxes that has saved Californians more than half a trillion dollars in the decades since its implementation. And it’s also been the case with social issues that would have otherwise been ignored by the state’s liberal establishment, such as prohibitions on racial preferences in state college admissions, bilingual education, and gay marriage—all of which passed handily at the ballot box.

Expediting policy shifts, however, is a relatively modest benefit in exchange for the dramatic cost of the initiative process: inducing widespread public-sector sclerosis. Rather than simply providing an outlet for popular grievances, direct democracy actually annexes huge swaths of policymaking from the legislature. When voters mandate a policy directive from the ballot box, the legislature has no way to override the decision, even by supermajority. As a result, any issue that voters weigh in on directly becomes their exclusive purview in perpetuity—amendable or repealable only by another popular vote. This also has the ironic effect of slowing down the democratic process that the initiative system is supposed to make more responsive, ensuring that policy shifts can only come on election days spread years apart. And many of the ballot measures take the form of constitutional amendments, a trend that has given California the unenviable distinction of having the third-longest constitution in the world, after India and (believe it or not) Alabama. Because altering the state’s foundational political charter only requires a simple majority, California ends up inhabiting a bizarro world where it’s relatively easy to amend the constitution but can be nearly impossible to alter basic public policy.

As is usually the case with Golden State governance, the worst results are economic. A host of ballot initiatives—most notably Proposition 98, which voters passed in 1988 to require that at least 40 percent of the state’s general fund be spent on elementary and secondary education—have laid down spending mandates that lock up huge portions of the state’s treasury. As much as 85 percent of California’s budget is allocated before the legislature even has a chance to set fiscal priorities. Thus, when budget crises hit—as they have with metronomic regularity in recent years—state legislators are left trying to dig out of the hole with as little as 15 cents on the dollar. At the same time, the spending binge continues at the polls: the state’s voters authorized more than $85 billion in bonds during the last decade.

The economic fallout brings the shortcomings of ballot-box policymaking into sharp relief. Time and again, California voters are asked to approve outlays for emotionally resonant issues—mental-health treatment, school improvements, funding children’s hospitals—and time and again, they sign off. But the right to vote on an issue is always untethered from any notion of fiscal responsibility. In most cases, voters aren’t required to find a funding mechanism, whether in the form of spending cuts or tax hikes. They’re simply asked if they’d like to be charitable on someone else’s dime. The result is the unsustainable mix of opposition to tax hikes and enthusiasm for new spending projects that has put the state in its current fiscal morass.

The appeal of the initiative process has always been grounded in a healthy skepticism of California’s elected officials, a trait which has also been on display in the state’s embrace of term limits, supermajority requirements for tax increases (and, until last year, passing a budget), and a citizens’ panel to control redistricting. But there comes a point at which checking government’s excesses veers into obstructing government’s functionality. Direct democracy in California has passed that point. If its advocates hope to see it reach a 200th anniversary, they need to scale back their ambitions.

(Troy Senik is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and a contributor at This article was first posted on City Journal.)


  1. roger thomas md says

    Great article! Please send to LA Times.

  2. this is so true now they even have long beach California residents shopping and leaving the store without even a plastic shopping bag to carry the items out of the store. Its enough already. F….. An environmentalist. They are really useless busy bodies with nothing really to do only to bein every one else’s business.

  3. “Does the ineffectiveness of the state legislature prove the need for direct democracy? Or is it the initiative process itself that renders the Golden State’s elected officials inert?”

    Neither. The two statements do however point to why the actual social progressivist soul of California activism is vested in itsbureacracy; they are election- proof appointed state administrators! Term limits made it nessesary for those who know best how to run your life, to seek a safe haven from which to operate and effect change. Duly elected representitives are limited by time to reduce the tempted corruption and damage a know-it-all could do, but that also tossed experience out the window needed by honest office holders. So newbie reps value and desperately need experienced Sacramento staffers to guide them.
    Do you suppose that is why Sacramento bureaucracy insists they are untouchable unlike the private sector, and stubbornly avoids reasonable down-sizing and cost cutting?
    They are the TRUE governent of Scaramento, and are NOT ELECTED.

  4. Think of progressivist controlled government bureacracy as a form of Herpes

  5. The last sentence is the telltale . This author thinks we are not capable of making reasoned decisions as a voting populace and wants a return to so-called representative government by the Legislature . Utter hogwash ! If we were dumb enough to buy that argument we would , indeed , not be smart enough to decide issues on a ballot . Very curiously , if this author is willing to accept the enlightened voter selection of representatives , why wouldn’t he accept the same voters making rational choices on ballot issues ? When has a legislative body ever not been co-opted by lobbyists ? Logic tells me it is much less likely that an entire electorate could similarly co-opted ? In fact , the many times we voters have been duped , as a group , it has been done by the very so-called custodians of our trust that would like us to surrender referendum and recall , our duly-elected legislators . If it might be argued that so-called Direct Democracy has gotten us into trouble , it completely defies belief that a legislature , left to its own , would not have done worse . In fact , this whole article completely ignores the mass of non-Direct Democracy legislative measures that have been passed which outnumber ballot-passed issues by enormous multiples and are , arguably , the real cause of our present financial straits !

  6. Just look at who is setting in California’s drivers seat : BROWN / BOXER / FiNESTEIN / PELOSI. These 4 should be IMPEACHED and replaced with US patriots, who love the USA / California. All 4 are known socialists, and don’t deny it. They do not work for the citizens, but for the Obama Government, and themselves, stuffing their paychecks into their pockets every pay day, and what is left over they dole out to the illegals…Prove me wrong, if you can ….We only have a few Republician’s in office , and they set on their hands most of the time. This fine group of Calif leaders have and are exposing our young Children to the Homosexual teaching, and the parents have no right to stop them , some parents have been jailed for trying, Just what kind of degenerate minds are at work here.??? BROWN signed the gay teachings Bill in, and was proud of what he had done. Now what kind of mind does he have , These are OUR AMERICAN children, being exposed to the 1st steps of Communism…………We are in the rotten garbage..with these people in office……..


  7. That’s the problem California is not a democracy, It’s a Republic. It states it on the flag. Wake up California. This state sucks. The only thing that keeps us here is the weather. And the global warming faggots are trying to screw that up.
    IMPEACH Brown Now.
    Give us back our gun rights.
    Deport all illegal aliens now. We can’t afford them. Don’t you get it. California is a siht hole.

  8. Roland Ilsen says

    The problem is that California legislature in in perpetual session . This gives it ability to keep grinding laws, such as regulating mylar balloons.

    Fortunately, there are other states which have successfully limited their legislature grom passing garbage law as a result of too much legislative time: I believe that Texas limits the legislative session to something like three months every two years. What an ingenuous invention.

  9. James V. Lacy says

    The conclusion that California voters “time and again” “approve outlays for emotionally resonant issues” by initiative is simply not correct. And an argument in favor of undermining the initiative system in California plays directly into the Democrats hands, who have a permanent lock on power in California, will soon be a permanent super majority in the Legislature, and who view the initiative system, and not the Republican Party, as their major obstacle to complete power. To the extent this article argues against the initiative power, it argues against the last “balance of power” in California.

    The November ballot will be crowded with initiatives. Here is some history in direct contradiction to the substance of this article: the last time we had a really crowded proposition ballot in 1990, Republican Pete Wilson beat Diane Feinstein for Governor; the people rebelled against the Legislature and passed the current terms limits law, Proposition 140, proposed by conservative Lew Uhler of the California based National Tax Limitation Committee, even though it was out-spent 31-1; 12 of 14 bond measures on “emotionally resonant issues” were defeated; three proposed increases in taxes were defeated; an “emotionally resonant” “green” measure (Proposition 141) was defeated; a tax revenue shift from motor vehicles to rail transit was defeated; a measure to allow outside contracting for prisons was approved (Proposition 139); and the only measure that passed that might otherwise be considered remotely “liberal” of the rest of the 28 propositions on the ballot was a measure to add gill and trammel net fishing to the list of sports fishing activities requiring a license. In other words, the election result was a conservative grass-roots blow out.

  10. Roland Ilsen says

    Bravo, James V. Lacy !

    The problem California has is a totally disfunctional Republican party. They have no principles they are willing to defend, no candidates that are willing to have defensible programs and defending these programs. Ever since Lungren ran for governorship, they all hope to win by smiling and being liked by everybody. They cannot learn form failures. They need to be liked only by 51%.

    Our hope now is the California Tea Party. They at least can explain that you cannot spend more that you have, that higher taxes mean less tax income, and that the government that governs least governs best.

  11. When all the arguments about republic vs. democracy are boiled down they all depend on the wisdom of the voters. Wise voters can make wise choices, send wise men and women into public office and make good choices about using the initiative process and recall. Those things are not bad in and of themselves.

    When wisdom falls into disrepute — and it has — then no system will govern successfully except dictatorship which can simply force behavior it wants by threat of legal sanction. We are headed there now. And it isn’t limited to California either.

    What is our hope? I don’t know. Perhaps someone can enlighten me. But I think things will get much worse before any change for the better can happen — much, much worse.

    Let’s face it — Republicans had a big hand in electing Jerry Brown. They still don’t know what hit them. The Progressives have smelled blood in the water like never before and they will fight by any means to get on top and stay on top.

    This is not a political crisis. It’s a failure of personal honesty, responsibility, morality and wisdom. It came from the people at large and only they can change it. Take a real good look at today’s Christmas advertising and tell me what attitude you see in it. Does that offer you any hope? Take a good look at the long lines of people staying up all night to be first in the doors on Black Friday. What does that tell you about our society?

    It would be good to get a better class of leaders into Sacramento. But the basic problem is us.

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