Mandatory condoms in porn movies. Legalized marijuana. Electronic cigarettes, taxed. Plastics carryout bags at convenience stores, protected by law. Same kind of disposable bags, prohibited by law, except if you pay a 10-cent usage tax. Ah, another election year approaches in the fully functional/dysfunctional citizens’ democracy of California.
More than a hundred potential ballot initiatives have been filed so far with the California Attorney General’s Office for the 2016 ballot. It only costs $200 to file each of them. Proponents must gather signatures equal to 5% of votes cast for Office of Governor in the last election. And, because so few eligible voters among California’s estimated 38 million residents bother to vote anymore, that means only 365,880 valid signatures are needed to qualify for the ballot. Maybe 15 to 20 will get on the ballot. Still, a ton of work and expenses for signature gatherers, state fiscal analysts, rule writers and polling workers.
And a bonanza for professional fund raisers. They will feed marketing campaigns and ad purchasers – especially on the still-somewhat-limited space called commercial radio and television. Beware the geyser of online popups!
Woven into this richness of general bizarre theater is some context – a cause and effect. Californians elect 80 folks for the state Assembly and 40 for the Senate. And in their two-year legislative session, they cumulatively introduce roughly 3,000 bills. They’ll beget, maybe, a thousand new laws annually.
Clearly, many believe the elected legislature doesn’t do enough of the people’s work, hence the endless tide of ballot initiatives – designed to reward or punish, diminish or enlarge government, correct, negate or exaggerate existing laws. One of the sacred hallmarks of government by ballot, the property-tax limiting Prop. 13, became a constitutional amendment nearly 40 years ago – a virtual artifact, unknown to many homebuyers who benefit from it but who are oblivious as to what California looked like pre-1978.
Important initiatives – to support hospitals, to create revenue for innovations in mental healthcare – can easily be buried by competing ballots, bonehead stuff and jargon-laden doubletalk. When a voter encounters streams of briny prose separated only by a string of numbers, the easiest option is to skip it or tread heavily down the “no” boxes.
Sadly, as a writer in the Economist magazine noted in 2011, the direct-democracy tool of ballot initiatives has gone from being a safety valve to being an engine of policy making. And another California "Twilight Zone" episode.