Western voters love ballot initiatives -- and sometimes make a mess

  • A voter signs a petition for a Montana ballot initiative

    Ray Ring

When Colorado voters go to the polls in November, they'll consider Proposition 103, a ballot initiative that would raise taxes to help fund public education. It's an attempt to fix some of the huge problems created by previous ballot measures that strangled education funding. It's also a messy habit: For decades, Colorado voters have repeatedly tried to use ballot measures to solve crises caused by other ballot measures.

This is a very Western phenomenon, worth some reflection in this election season. Nationwide, fewer than half the states allow citizens to make laws directly by gathering signatures on petitions and then having statewide votes. But every state in the West allows it, except for New Mexico and Hawaii. That's because Western states more or less took shape in the early 1900s, an era of populism and the progressive movement. Many people back then were concerned about powerful corporations -- railroads, banks, mining and steel -- dominating legislatures. So they wrote citizen lawmaking into their state constitutions.

Over the years, grassroots initiatives have racked up many accomplishments. In 1906, Oregon voters ordered railroads to stop bribing government officials with free rail passes. In 1916, Arizona voters established regulations on hunting and fishing. Washington voters decided in 1952 that margarine could be made more attractive with yellow coloring, thereby throwing off the shackles imposed by butter corporations, which had pushed the state Legislature to ban yellow margarine. And so on.

Voters use initiatives "to overcome the self-interest" of the legislators they elect, says Paul Jacob, president of Citizens in Charge, a libertarian group based in the Washington, D.C., area that promotes the initiative process. Many legislators are corrupted by their need to raise campaign money and please "the power players -- big business and big labor (unions)," Jacob says.

Yet ever since Californians passed the most famous tax-limit initiative, Proposition 13, in 1978, there's been an explosion of initiatives making all kinds of new laws in many states. In April, The Economist magazine said California's ballot initiatives indicate "the perils of extreme democracy." Californians have approved hundreds of initiatives since 1978 "on subjects (ranging) from education to the regulation of chicken coops," The Economist observed. "This citizen legislature has caused chaos. Many initiatives have either limited taxes or mandated spending, making it even harder to balance the budget. Some are so ill-thought-out that they achieve the opposite of their intent. ... Rather than being the curb on elites that they were supposed to be, ballot initiatives have become a tool of special interests, with ... extremists bankrolling laws that are often bewildering in their complexity and obscure in their ramifications."

These problems have triggered increasing calls for reforms. "Over the last 10 years, American voters have decided ... more than 1,500 initiatives and referenda (ballot measures created by legislatures) ... Unfortunately, direct democracy is often undermined by weak (state) laws" that allow ballot-measure campaigns to be conducted differently than elections for candidates, with secret funding, petition-signature hustling and outright fraud, says the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a D.C.-based reform group. "The initiative process has been hijacked by well-funded, well-messaged campaigns from the right wing" -- pushing initiatives against taxes, regulations, gay marriage and abortions -- "while progressives have played a weak defense."

Recently, many legislatures have tried to alter the process, mostly by making it more difficult for voters to pass initiatives. This year, California's Legislature passed bills that said: People who circulate petitions can't be paid for each signature, because it encourages a hustling mentality; any who are paid must wear a badge acknowledging it; and the top funders behind the petition must be revealed. But Gov. Jerry Brown, D, vetoed all three, calling them a "slippery slope" that could slide citizen democracy right off a cliff. (Brown did sign a bill that said initiatives can't be scheduled in small-turnout special elections and primaries, where special interests have even more power than in general elections.)

Meanwhile, there are countless local ballot measures. In Boulder, Colo., November voters could enable the city to create its own electricity utility so it can ramp up its supply of  solar and wind power. The Boulder City Council put the proposal on the ballot, but the "campaign is 100 percent a citizen campaign," says Ken Regelson, a volunteer leader for the group pushing it, Citizens for Boulder's Clean Energy Future, "while the campaign against is 100 percent Xcel (the giant utility that supplies the city with mostly fossil-fuel electricity). It's David and Goliath; they're outspending us 10- or 15-to-1."

Voters in Bellingham, Wash., will weigh a measure that aims to ban ticket-generating traffic cameras. Commerce City, Colo., will decide on an initiative that would increase the sales tax on medical marijuana. Even as many legislatures, tangled in partisan gridlock, appear helpless in the face of crises over education, the environment and the economy, citizen democracy staggers onward. "In more than 100 years of ballot initiatives, it's not as if voters haven't made mistakes," says Jacob at Citizens in Charge. "But when you compare initiatives to legislatures, voters (pushing initiatives) do a heckuva better job."

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