Ballot initiatives play an increasingly important role in setting policy in California on every issue from healthcare and the environment to same-sex marriage. In 1911, when wealthy special interests had corrupted politics in Sacramento and crippled the people’s ability to hold government accountable, California established the initiative, referendum, and recall to give the people the power to make or unmake their own state laws and to remove their elected officials. But today, that system is not functioning as it was intended, especially for California’s new majority.
Wealthy special interest dollars fuel the initiative economy, which coupled with a lack of review and oversight, plus poor voter education on ballot measures, has led to poorly drafted proposals, legal challenges and attacks on people’s civil rights. This is not the empowering direct democracy reformers had envisioned.
In 2011, the Greenlining Institute launched an unprecedented effort to identify a set of reforms to fix our broken system. With funding from California Forward, the James Irvine Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we conducted a two-part public opinion survey of a representative sample of California adults in June and December, 2011.1 More importantly, we convened 17 community listening sessions across 14 cities to learn more about real voter experiences, attitudes and ideas for direct democracy. The input we received from the community, in addition to that from a 33-member advisory panel of policy experts, good government groups, and community-based leaders, helped us develop a reform agenda that can start to return the initiative system to its “citizen democracy” roots.