California’s budget process is broken. It’s under stress because of the difficult economy, but it’s broken because of California’s system of ballot questions. In California, a “proposition” can allow a relatively small number of citizens to force decisions that are binding on the whole state.
Propositions have so limited the state’s budget authority that it many be forced to suspend most highway repairs and close its state parks until the economy improves.
The proposition system in California was supposed to strengthen democracy by giving voters a way to act as a check on the state government. Instead, it has weakened democracy. The proposition system is not really controlled by the voters, but by commercial interests.
The biggest hurdle for a proposition in California is getting it on the ballot. But anyone with tens of millions of dollars to spend can get it done. This money is so central to the process that voters can assume that any proposition they see is a by-product of a corporate advertising budget. And there is a “gotcha” element in propositions — they are legally binding, but voters get to see only about a 20-word summary. Often they end up voting for things that they had no idea they were voting for. Would you sign a contract after reading just a 20-word summary of what it supposedly says? Probably not, and if someone asks you to, you can be pretty sure it’s a business that’s in a hurry to get your money. So how many California propositions are effectively sponsored by businesses that are in a hurry to get the state’s money? Just to emphasize the commercial nature of a proposition, the primary tool for discussing them is the 30-second commercial message on television. Propositions in California are about as commercialized as politics can get, short of actually allowing businesses to pay voters for their votes.
A group that’s trying to change this is Vote No On Everything. In the short run, it’s trying to regain voter control over the proposition process by persuading a small group of voters to vote no on all propositions, except where there is a compelling reason to vote yes. They don’t want to take away the role of the proposition as a check on excesses of state power, but they want to vote down all other propositions. If about 5 percent of voters would reliably vote against the more whimsical propositions, it would make it much harder for commercial interests to sneak ballot measures past the voters.
The “Vote No” strategy is just a stopgap solution, and people are still searching for an institutional solution, which might take the form of an amendment to the California constitution. There has to be a way that ballot questions can act as a robust check on abuses of government power without turning so much power over to commercial interests. A few details of this are clear already: the vote of a small fraction of the state’s voters should not be sufficient to tie the state’s hands; a one-sentence summary on the ballot cannot suffice to bind a state to a much longer document that might say something quite different; and the ballot question process cannot merely be a mechanism to sell control of the government to the highest bidder.