Calif. marks 100 years since political reforms

AP News

10/8/2011 1:37:01 PM - AP News

The state that has seen pitched battles at the ballot box over property tax reforms, gay marriage, illegal immigration and recalling a governor was not always the standard-bearer for direct democracy.

California voters adopted the initiative, recall and referendum 100 years ago this week amid an era of ingrained corruption, and the ballot arguments employed to sway them are not so different from the types of election-year claims that have become a hallmark of the nation's most populous and politically turbulent state.

If adopted, the ballot argument read, the slate of reforms would hand ultimate power to the people and compel lawmakers to avoid unwise deal-making with moneyed special interests. A century later, the initiative process has become as quintessentially California as sunshine and opportunity, even if it has left a legacy of unintended consequences.

By the time of the statewide election on Oct. 10, 1911, voter discontent had reached a crescendo, with Californians feeling frustrated and disenfranchised.

Stories of political corruption and bribery trials of corporate executives and labor leaders were fixtures of the newspapers. The Southern Pacific Railroad controlled nearly every lever of power in California, including many of the state's largest newspapers that were beholden to its advertising revenue. Lawmakers rode the rails for free and dined on the company's dime.

Hiram Johnson, an upstart lawyer who had tried to elicit change from outside the halls of power, seized the moment. In his 1910 campaign for governor, he promised to end the tyranny of robber baron railroad officials and return power to the masses.

"Nearly every governmental problem involving the health, the happiness or the prosperity of the state has arisen because some private interest has intervened or has sought for its own gain to exploit either the resources or the politics of the state," Johnson decried in his first inaugural address in 1911. "The first duty that is mine to perform is to eliminate every private interest from the government, and to make the public service of the state solely responsible to the people."

The new governor and a slate of lawmakers in what came to be known as the Progressive Era put direct democracy on the ballot that year. On Oct. 10, voters approved the most expansive initiative and recall powers in the nation during a special statewide election that featured 23 ballot measures, including one that gave women the right to vote, nine years before that right was enshrined in the Constitution.

The movement had not begun in California. South Dakota become the first state to adopt the initiative process, in 1898, and nine other states adopted it before California voters did. In 1903, Los Angeles became the first California city to allow ballot initiatives.

In the years since, however, no state has come to embody direct democracy like California, where the initiative process has become like a fourth branch of government. Voters are wary of any efforts to change a system that is widely regarded as useful, even if it's imperfect.

"There's a strong belief that voters and the initiative process are better at making public policy than the governor or the Legislature," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, which has found support for maintaining direct democracy since it began polling on the issue in the 1990s.

The people see it as a "flawed but necessary" process, he said.

The 1911 special election ballot carried 23 propositions, including questions about judicial powers, public utilities and railroad regulatory authority. Many of those topics would go before voters again and again in the coming decades.

The voters proved themselves wise students, at least on the first ballot. After studying the large broadsheet newspapers that printed the legal text of the 23 measures in tiny, eye-straining type, Californians approved all but one _ a measure that would have allowed the Southern Pacific to continue giving travel tickets to elected officials.

Almost immediately, direct democracy became a means of going around uninterested or unwilling lawmakers. Women had been lobbying the California Legislature for voting rights since 1879; the people granted them in their first referendum.

But a system designed to "supplement the work of the Legislature when it failed or refused to act," quickly became like another branch of government, at times as flawed as the others, according to Democracy by Initiative, a review of the process by the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.

Many activists tried repeatedly to get their priorities approved by voters, no matter how many times they had been rejected. Voters considered and rejected prohibition in 1914, 1916, 1918 and 1920. Measures relating to the prohibition or regulation of alcohol were on the ballot at least 11 times through 1948. Supporters of legalizing marijuana have been trying to do that through initiatives since 1972.

Despite the reforms' overwhelming popularity with voters, many newspapers opposed them. In an editorial, the New York Times criticized the newly born political process in terms that resonate a century later.

"The new method is proposed as a check on the machines. But the strength of the machines lies in the inattention and indifference of the voters," the Times warned in a piece headlined "Anti-Democracy in California."

"When the machine managers get familiar with the working of the new method, they will work it for their own ends far more readily than they would the present method."

That warning has come to pass in recent decades, as a process that was intended to curb the influence of special interests has evolved into a tool for corporations and wealthy individuals to enact changes they desire.

"Hiram Johnson intended this as a vehicle for everyday Californians to effect change in California, and it has become a way for fewer everyday Californians to participate and more and more moneyed interests from outside California to impact our state," said Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and a member of California Forward, one of two prominent government reform groups.

As ubiquitous as ballot measure campaigns seem to be, of the 1,657 initiatives titled and summarized for circulation from 1911 to 2010, just 348 _ or 21 percent _ made the ballot. Of those, voters approved 116, or one-third.

Since the first ones in 1911, 47 referendums to repeal a law have been on the ballot, with 19 passing.

There have been just five successful recalls in 100 years. Most famously, California voters ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and replaced him with bodybuilder-turned Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, drawing national attention and some derision for California's political process.

The initiative process also has allowed California voters to make far-reaching decisions about state spending. That includes limiting the amount property taxes can increase through Proposition 13 and guaranteeing that schools will receive a large part of the state budget through Proposition 98.

Since television became the preferred method of campaigning in California, costs have climbed dramatically. Just gathering signatures to qualify an initiative for the ballot costs about $3 million. Spending on initiative campaigns has risen by 750 percent during the last 30 years, even accounting for inflation, according to the Center for Governmental Studies.

For those with enough money to qualify initiatives and launch ad campaigns, there is little incentive to change the system. Two bipartisan groups, California Forward and Think Long California, have emerged in recent years to seek government reforms, including an overhaul of the initiative, referendum and recall process.

"The political-industrial complex, the people who have the power, they don't want to give it up. They want to be able to write the check for $10 million or $20 million and get a law they want," said former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat and member of both groups.

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