Commentary: Prop 1,001: Let's Put A Lid On Ballot Propositions

It was an exercise in popular democracy gone haywire. From California to Maine, conservatives and liberals alike--business and consumer groups, doctors, and labor unions--spent $150 million or more this year to pursue their agendas in ballot measures.

The result was a mess: Ninety measures in 20 states presented voters a baffling array of choices, often with misleading and contradictory messages. In the name of democracy, interest groups effectively seized the workings of government--and legislators and council reps all too readily gave it up. Many of the successful initiatives will be overturned by courts, and the process costs taxpayers millions.

SLICK CONSULTANTS. In theory, ballot initiatives could prove a very useful outlet for voter frustration. But there's just too much to digest. In Oregon, voters had to wade through a 247-page tome to figure out that state's 23 ballot measures. And slick image consultants transformed some well-intended grassroots movements into the same old campaign hackery. Even some ballot organizers are worried about a backlash. "People are getting completely overwhelmed," warns Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, which pushed a successful initiative to hike the state's minimum wage to $5 an hour next March and $5.75 in 1998.

Nowhere were the issues more jumbled than in California. There, the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, approved by a wide margin, could roll back a generation of affirmative action policy. But its wording told voters only that the state "shall not discriminate against...any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, or ethnicity." What's more, the California GOP planned to spend $2 million on TV ads invoking Martin Luther King, pulling the spots only after his family threatened to sue.

Californians aren't the only voters to put up with such shenanigans. In Arizona, the electorate was pelted with ads urging them to "get tough on crime" by voting for Proposition 200, which provides stiff sentences for violent crimes committed under the influence of illegal drugs. What the ads didn't mention: The measure also would legalize marijuana and other drugs for medicinal uses. Phoenix voter Billy Sampson was nearly fooled. "I don't want to see drugs get legalized," he says. "It's confusing the way they try to get hidden things voted on." The measure passed 2 to 1.

Initiative opponents proved just as resourceful. In Florida, the sugar industry combined big bucks and subterfuge to defeat a proposed penny-per-pound sugar tax to help clean up the Everglades. Not only did sugar producers spend $23 million to defeat the measure but they named their group "Citizens to Save Jobs and Stop Unfair Taxes" and warned of higher property taxes if the idea passed. (It didn't.)

State authorities are waking up to the abuses. A Florida state attorney warned the sugar industry that such tactics could be illegal. Arkansas' Supreme Court recently threw off the ballot three measures intended to legalize gambling, ruling that they misled voters.

ONLY THE PRETENSE. As in previous elections, many of this year's initiatives went down to defeat. Others that passed, like the California Civil Rights Initiative, probably will be tied up in court for years. That's the real irony. These initiatives rarely decide anything, giving voters only the pretense of enhanced democracy.

One sure way to limit this waste of time and money is simply to put a lid on the initiative process. In Oregon, citizens tried to put a measure on this year's ballot that would have limited the number of initiatives that could appear in any one year. That one didn't make it, but the idea is sound. Voters could refocus their energies on electing the best candidates. And state assemblies could get back to the business of governing.

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