Has big money doomed direct democracy?

The history of initiatives is the history of the rise and fall of contentment with, and trust in, representative government.

  • Cartoon of teeter-totter balancing wildlife and the dollar sign

    Greg Siple
  • Cartoon of getting attention of the state government

    Rob Pudim
  • Barn at Seufert's Cannery in Oregon

    Oregon Historical Society G12402

Three years ago, when Joni Bosh was five months pregnant, she spent July 4th on a street corner in Phoenix. Air-conditioned cars whizzed past her, but she kept waving her petitions through the 110-degree air, shouting for signatures. Arizona's conservative legislature had just passed a "takings' bill and she and her allies had only 60 days to collect the 52,000 names needed to put it to a public vote, or it would go into effect.

Sweating in the heat was just the beginning of the fight to defeat the referendum and its developer backers. Bosh and other environmentalists had to enter the world of power politics. They hired a consultant to orchestrate the campaign and paid people to drum up signatures. Once the bill made it onto the ballot, they paid to blast the message on radio and TV that takings - compensating property owners for government regulation - was just too expensive.

"We handled it like a Senate race," says Bosh. "It boiled down to an immense headache about raising money."

The golden age of "direct democracy"

This is what "direct democracy" involves today - ironic, for something that was developed to boot money out of politics. Populists in the late 19th century thought that initiatives and referenda could loosen the tight grip that the rich exercised on legislators, so they set out to embed these processes in state constitutions.

In the East and South, politics were mired in ethnic and political machines, and most state legislatures fiercely resisted giving citizens the power to make laws. But to its newest citizens, the Western frontier felt clean, pure and egalitarian. In the early 1900s, all but New Mexico voted to allow both initiatives and referenda.

Statewide initiatives and referenda remain primarily a Western phenomenon. Elsewhere, state legislatures and governors still fend off this form of direct democracy: A bill to allow initiatives was introduced in committee in the Pennsylvania state legislature in 1991. It died two years later.

Ballot measures were used to protect the Western environment as early as 1924, when Californians voted to ban all dams on the Klamath River, which still runs free. But during the post-war patriotism of the 1940s, and on into the early 1960s, very few people challenged state legislatures with initiatives or referenda.

Political unrest in the early 1970s fired up the grassroots anew. In 1970, Americans celebrated Earth Day and Oregonians voted on an initiative to ban dams from their wild and scenic rivers. The next two decades were direct democracy's heyday. When people found state legislatures dominated by any special interest, they turned to the grass roots, especially in California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, says Earl Bender, a Washington, D.C.-based initiative consultant. While the right wing reined in government with tax reform and term limits initiatives, environmentalists used the process to stall the mushrooming nuclear industry and to preserve open space around the West.

Campaigns were run on shoestring budgets - as low as $1,000 - with the help of some dedicated door-knockers, says Jerry Meral of the California-based Planning and Conservation League. On the day before the 1974 elections, Meral and his friends wanted to alert voters to an initiative he organized to stop a dam on the Stanislaus River: They hung a sheet painted with "Yes On 17" over a freeway and stood on the overpass, encouraging zooming cars to honk if they liked rivers. Like many initiatives, it lost, but at the time the activists didn't blame it on their lack of TV ads or direct mail.

"We were so innocent," he says.

Hard times in a conservative age

This kind of innocence ended abruptly with the 1988 and 1990 elections. Although environmentalists won 61 percent of their ballot propositions in 1990 (the across-the-board average for all ballot propositions was 38 percent), they lost some of their largest and most publicized campaigns. Among these was an initiative known as "Big Green," which attempted to address a wide range - perhaps too wide a range - of environmental problems in California, including ozone protection, oil spills, pesticides, recycling and logging.

While the fate of any initiative campaign depends on the political landscape of that state at that moment, Bender says that several forces aligned to crush environmental initiatives during the early 1990s. America was slipping into a recession and into a war in the Persian Gulf. Americans became increasingly leery about voting for anything that could raise taxes or cost money. The press became similarly conservative.

"When Iraq invaded Kuwait, environmental coverage disappeared," says David Schmidt, who had been leading a California initiative against clearcutting called Forests Forever. "It was sudden, dramatic and total."

Waking a sleeping giant

At the same time, the extractive industries woke up to the damage that initiatives could do to both their profits and their reputations. They decided that it would set a bad precedent if they were painted as polluters in one state, even if their business was in another, says Sally Cross of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. Cross worked on a 1992 Oregon initiative to make strip-mining companies clean up their waste. Initiative promoters were outspent 20 to 1, and much of that money came from Nevada mining companies. In California, the logging, oil, pesticide and gas industries placed counter-initiatives on the 1990 ballot - dubbed "Big Brown" and "Stumps Forever" by opponents - confusing voters about which initiatives would help the environment.

Of course, both sides misrepresent the issues, but in the age of TV, the power to misrepresent comes in a sound bite and is bought with money. Some initiatives to create open space still pass - such as Colorado's GOCO in 1992, which allocated state lottery money to buy land. But most initiatives challenging a resource-based industry since 1990 have been smothered by the opposition's money. Their consultants drill holes in environmental propositions by calling them too confusing, costly or complex, says Bender, and they outspend environmentalists by up to 46 to 1 to get their message on the airwaves and into mailboxes.

In 1990, packaging companies defeated a popular recycling initiative in Oregon by airing an ad with a close-up of a dead fish on a styrofoam platter. "Salmonella, botulism ...," said the voice-over, warning that public health was at risk if certain packagings were banned. Industry had out-sensationalized environmentalists.

"The opposition has purchased the public's fear," says Maureen Kirk of the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, who worked on the campaign. "We need to be extremely calm in our response."

Environmentalists weren't only being outspent, they were also being out-strategized. Conservatives had discovered that by running initiative campaigns on any number of "hot button issues," such as gay rights, private property "takings," abortion or school vouchers, they could bolster their membership, increase voter turnout for favored candidates and force the opposition to take time and money away from their own candidates to counter the attack. Winning the initiative was gravy.

Grover Norquist, a close ally of Newt Gingrich and president of the initiative group Americans for Tax Reform, exposed this strategy in a 1992 article, "Prelude to a Landslide," which linked the Republican 1994 congressional takeover to conservative ballot initiatives. Since then, Norquist has staged a monthly conference call offering strategy tips to organizers of an array of conservative initiatives.

"The conference calls are extremely helpful. We can get initiative and referenda activists and people who are experts on the phone together," says Norquist's aide Kolt Jones, who adds that his tax reform group coordinates anti-gay, takings, anti-abortion and parental-rights initiatives because they "are all key to reforming the ways the states give special treatments." The "star" initiative of the network this year, says Jones, is a California initiative that would eliminate all affirmative action from all public institutions.

The upshot of this national coordination from the right is that, instead of offering their own measures, environmentalists have to struggle to defend the status quo. A year after Joni Bosh and others held the property-rights movement at bay in Arizona, organizers in Washington had to rally against a takings initiative.

The lessons of defeat

But the defensive posture has been educational: Environmentalists have learned to win at least some campaigns. The techniques used in Arizona and Washington are now considered essential. In fact, this year Montana's clean water initiative campaign hired Dee Frankforth, the campaign manager for Washington's anti-takings battle, as a consultant. According to Frankforth, campaigns must have a narrow subject, and a message developed by polling and focus groups that doesn't seem costly or confusing. They need a broad coalition of allies to continuously drill this message into the public's head, and spokespeople who can't be painted as radicals by well-funded opponents. Organizers are now prepared for lawsuits challenging everything from the margin width on the petitions to the drug histories of the petitioners. And they try to have the same number of zeros in their budget as the opposition, so they can compete in the airwave wars and pay consultants and signature gatherers.

The Humane Society of the United States has taken the next step by forming a national network similar to Norquist's. Its initiatives against some kinds of hunting and trapping are among the few ballot measures that have passed since 1990. Relying on its massive membership in local chapters (2.5 million) and the national organization's experience in crafting sophisticated campaigns, the society has put the National Rifle Association and the Safari Club International on the defensive.

Should environmentalists take this step? Many consultants think so. Since 1990, Roy Morgan, of the D.C.-based Americans for the Environment, has worked to develop a national strategy. He's urged national conservation groups to aid local groups, held two national conferences for initiative organizers and consultants to share expertise, and is forming a clearinghouse on right-wing ballot initiatives to unite a broad group of progressives, including environmentalists, unions, teachers and civil-rights activists.

But some environmentalists who have spent years in the trenches fighting for initiatives are discouraged by what has happened to direct democracy.

"I have a longtime fear that initiatives will get so expensive people can't use them," says Bosh. "This is a warning for the future. We are getting bombarded by the other side."

"It's a very time- and labor- intensive way to have a public discussion," says Cross, who recently lost a mining initiative. And Kirk, who lost a recycling initiative in 1990, adds, "It is a very rare decision for us to do proactive environmental initiatives anymore."

Instead, Kirk wants to work on getting big money out of initiative campaigns, a subject which is just beginning to be discussed. In Montana, where half of the contributions to ballot campaigns between 1982 and 1994 came from corporations, voters will face an initiative next month that would prevent corporations from funding initiative campaigns.

Has the populist dream ended? David Schmidt of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has written one of the few books on initiatives, says no. At least people in the West have an alternative to hostile legislatures, he says. Even if initiative campaigns don't win, they often bolster citizen activism and raise public interest which could lead to definitive results in the future.

Despite the ferment over the process, it is being widely used this year by environmentalists as a way around increasingly conservative state legislatures. Oregon is tackling grazing reform, which has come to a standstill nationally. Montana is asking the booming mining industry to clean its water. Hunters in Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Idaho are debating the ethical way to kill an animal. In each campaign, things are being done in old ways as well as new - signature gatherers still stand on Main Street, but consultants write the spiels the gatherers tell passing shoppers - as the West struggles to maintain a history of direct democracy in the age of pricey politics.

Heather Abel is a staff reporter for High Country News.

Note: this article is part of a feature package on ballot initiatives that includes these other articles:

- Polluted waters divide Oregon

- An 'unfair, inflexible' bid to clean Montana's water

- Will Idaho voters derail nuclear trains?

- Colorado voters decide fate of 3 million acres

- Western hunters debate ethics tooth and claw

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- How citizens make laws

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