A hundred years ago, Californians were campaigning mightily over a question put to them by progressive Republican lawmakers, who had recently taken charge in Sacramento with the help of organized labor: Do you want to adopt direct democracy and give yourselves the power to recall officeholders and put initiatives and referendums on the ballot? The idea was to cut through a system that had all the trappings of democracy but had in fact been corrupted and managed by the Southern Pacific Railroad and a handful of political bosses. On Oct. 10, 1911, voters overwhelmingly said yes to reform.
Reformers today argue that corporations and political bosses have co-opted direct democracy for their own purposes, and that it's time for the populace to win it back. Their opponents, on the other hand, say that initiative reform is merely a bid by Democrats and their union allies — a majority in organized labor having long since shifted party loyalties — to put Sacramento back in charge. In either case, there can be little doubt that the initiative and referendum system has been immersed in the rough-and-tumble of partisan and power politics.
Take two all-too-clever moves in Sacramento to hijack, or at least engage in a nasty tug of war over, direct democracy. First, corporate giant Amazon.com put a substantial chunk of its fortune to work gathering signatures to overturn a law requiring out-of-state retailers to collect sales taxes (known as "use taxes") on online purchases. Democrats have responded with an attempt to pass the bill again, but this time as an "urgency measure" — which, under the state Constitution, cannot be subject to a referendum.