Commentary

Is Love For Initiatives Turning Off Voters?


By Tracy Gordon, research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 6, 2004

Critics have lambasted California as "a poster child for democracy run amok." They claim that our use of statewide citizen initiatives -- we have voted on more citizen proposed measures than any other state in the nation except Oregon -- has corrupted the political process and favors the very special interests that direct democracy was intended to curb.

They argue that these initiatives lead to bad public policy, reserving particular scorn for measures that have instituted term limits for elected officials or tied the hands of lawmakers by earmarking funds for specific purposes -- so called ballot-box budgeting. Initiatives, they conclude, contribute to a vicious cycle of legislative gridlock, voter distrust and ... ever more initiatives.

Now, more and more, critics are assuming that the perceived harmful effects of the statewide initiative process are magnified at the local level. If true, this criticism is particularly biting in San Francisco. Indeed, we are extremely prolific users of the local citizen initiative -- voters in the City and County of San Francisco proposed 54 citizen measures during the 1990s compared to just one in the average California city and three in the average county, according to an analysis of reports from the California Secretary of State and other sources.

Moreover, we have used initiatives to set major local policies, including limiting general-assistance benefits to the homeless under Care Not Cash, establishing instant-runoff elections and deciding (three times) the fate of the Central Freeway. San Francisco's enthusiastic embrace of direct democracy has deep roots: The city was one of the first jurisdictions in the nation to adopt the initiative and referendum in 1898.

But should San Francisco's increasing use of ballot measures really cause us concern? Are the criticisms of unfairness and corrupted democracy directed at the state borne out in the city?

The answer is, probably not.

First, despite their frequency, citizen initiatives hardly constitute a "fourth branch of government." Even in San Francisco, they are not nearly as prevalent as other sources of legislation. Since 1907, only 8 percent of San Francisco's local measures have been citizen proposed, compared to the 87 percent placed on the ballot by the county Board of Supervisors. In this November's election, only one of 15 local measures on our ballot is a citizen initiative.

Second, it does not appear that special interests dominate the local initiative process. Local initiatives address matters of broad concern to city residents -- including land use, governance, public safety and housing. Generally, they are about five times more likely to qualify for the ballot than statewide measures, but passage rates at the ballot box are similar to those at the state level. Although data on local campaign financing is hard to come by, "pro-growth" -- and presumably developer-backed -- my research shows that measures are no more likely to pass into law than "anti-growth" initiatives. This is consistent with research at the state level (in "The Populist Paradox: Interest Group Influence and the Promise of Direct Legislation" by Elisabeth Gerber) showing that campaign spending can defeat initiatives, but in no way guarantees their electoral success, undermining the argument that initiatives are a surefire way for moneyed interests to make self-serving public policy.

Finally, there is no evidence that initiatives lead to "voter fatigue. " On the contrary, according to a 2002 study for the Public Policy Institute, local elections with at least one citizen initiative on the ballot tend to have slightly higher voter turnout, all else being equal.

Although critics of the state initiative may have a gut feeling that all is not well with local direct democracy, there is no evidence that the local initiative leaves the average voter any worse off. Voters in San Francisco and elsewhere are using the local initiative just as Progressive reformers intended, addressing policy issues not adequately resolved by their elected representatives and in the process creating a more engaged and informed citizenry. Learn to love it, because the local initiative is here to stay.

Publications

Are There Winners and Losers? Race, Ethnicity, and California's Initiative Process

The California Initiative Process-How Democratic Is It?

The Local Initiative in California