He might have better things to do.

Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

California, the Cradle of Reckless Referendums

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

Saddle up, California voters: Your November ballot is going to be a long, long slog. 

California has now certified 17 statewide ballot measures for November. The issues range from the death penalty to plastic bags in grocery stores to marijuana legalization to ammunition regulation to health provisions for porn actors to, well, you can read about them yourself. There haven't been so many initiatives in an election in the state since 2000.

This isn’t democracy. This is not self-government in any meaningful sense. If it were up to me, I’d invoke Section 4 in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government” -- meaning self-government -- and tell California to knock off this nonsense once and for all.

That isn't going to happen, alas. When I lived in California, I voted against all initiatives on the theory that it’s better for all of them to fail -- and to discourage future measures -- than for only the ones I supported to pass.

The system is not self-government when it would require hours of study just to properly cast an informed vote on these 17 measures. It’s government by campaign professionals, who make plenty of money from this stuff. It’s government by interest groups that are able to hide their involvement. It’s also government in which the insiders have all the advantages.

Voters are not experts on the (often all-important) details of policy. Nor are they lawyers, who can read a statute and understand how it would work in practice (and identify any subterfuge on the part of the authors). Voters aren’t stupid (at least not most of them!), but they are often ill-informed. After all, we all have plenty of other things to do.

Representative democracy gets around this problem in two ways. Political parties make voting choices easy, since all voters have to do is figure out which broad coalition suits them better, and they can apply that decision to all partisan elections. And elected insiders have strong incentives to listen to their constituents, because there’s always another election coming. Those incentives are missing in the ballot-measure process.

Using a referendum to determine public policy is a mess even in the best possible circumstances. The vote in the U.K. over leaving the European Union was, in fact, close to the best circumstances. The issue was relatively clear (“Leave” or “Remain”). It was clearly important, so voters were likely to pay attention. It was the only issue on the ballot, and therefore relatively easy for people to gather information without other electoral distractions.

And yet interpreting the vote is still extremely difficult. As political scientist Turkuler Isiksel wrote at the Monkey Cage about Brexit and ballot questions in general:

Here’s the problem: Most referendums do not allow for specifying alternatives, giving and weighing reasons, or ranking preferences. And they give no indication of what tradeoffs the electorate is willing to tolerate, or guidance on how to proceed with the vast number of decisions that must be made to implement the people’s will.

California's situation doesn’t come anywhere close to the best possible circumstances. There's not one ballot question, but 17. And the 17 decisions are part of the regular ballot for political offices. And while some measures are important, none of them is as nation-defining as the Brexit vote was.

Legislatures are considered to be the heart of modern democracy, and with good reason. Representation allows ordinary citizens to be “present” in deliberations on policy in a way that is otherwise impossible in a large polity. Legislators (and elected executives) pay close attention to their constituents. They usually try to fulfill their promises, or at the least act with those promises in mind and return to their districts to explain their actions in the context of their original promises. If they don't treat voters as full citizens, they risk defeat.

All the incentives of ballot measures, however, are different. Direct referendums treat voters not as full citizens, let alone political actors, but as consumers to be manipulated using the best techniques of marketing and advertising.

Yes, there is plenty of manipulation in elections among candidates too. But it accompanies real representation. Manipulation without that representation just isn't democracy.

  1. The necessary explainer: “republican” and “democratic” are, in the present day, basically synonyms for “self-government.” There are many types of democracy, of which direct democracy is one --  but the details of how propositions actually work make a farce of any claim to real direct democracy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net