Progressives brought these reforms to California and other states a century ago in order to help voters overcome powerful, well-funded and entrenched special interests. The first statewide initiative appeared on Oregon’s 1904 ballot. Today, 24 states have some measure of statewide initiative rights, three others have only statewide referendum, and 15 states have a functional process for the recall of public officials.
A century ago, voters in California thought initiative, referendum and recall made sense. They still do today. In fact, voters in every state believe they deserve these basic rights as a check on elected officials. The catch-22 is that in states where voters lack the initiative, legislators can keep their monopoly on passing laws by refusing to offer citizens the very processes whereby citizens could overrule them.
Many in the media share the politicians’ hostility to citizen democracy, arguing that voters don’t have enough information to make complex decisions, especially about how much money politicians get to tax and spend. They do not want initiatives to tie the hands of elected officials and policymakers. Of course, sometimes that is precisely what voters seek to do by initiative.
The Washington Post’s David Broder bemoans that California legislators "have little room to maneuver." The Economist declares, "Empowering the people sounds nice in theory; in practice, it makes it very hard for Sacramento politicians to balance the budget and take care of other state business." Laura Tyson, an economic advisor to former President Clinton, claims that voter initiatives are dictating 70 percent of state spending and pronounced California "ungovernable."
However, facts can get in the way of good political spin. A study by Professor John Matsusaka of the University of Southern California and the Initiative & Referendum Institute shows that "voter initiatives have not caused the California budget crisis…" In fact, voter initiatives dictate only about 2 percent of state government spending.
Professor Matsusaka concludes that "the initiative process is a scapegoat for the inability of elected officials to manage the competing demands for public funds in a period of declining revenue."
The argument for initiative, referendum and recall is not that voters are omnipotent. Democracy may be the best of all forms of government, but it is still government. Voters make tons of mistakes. Take the Congress. Please!
As Lily Tomlin once said: "Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hard-working, honest Americans. It's the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them."
The strength of our system-—of any democratic system-—is in having real choices at the ballot box and the opportunity to correct the mistakes we make. For all California’s problems, voters in every state do indeed embrace California’s solutions: citizen initiative, referendum and recall.
Having a Plan B is always a good idea.