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California's fight over direct democracy

Reformers argue that corporations and political bosses have co-opted the process for their own purposes. Opponents say initiative reform is a bid by Democrats and their union allies to put Sacramento back in charge.

August 29, 2011

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 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.

Meanwhile, corporate groups and their Republican allies are circulating petitions for an initiative to bar unions from taking a portion of member dues, without permission, for political purposes. Democrats in Sacramento are responding with a bill to require all measures to appear not on next June's primary ballot — when Republicans will be out in droves to select their presidential nominee — but in November, when California Democrats are expected to turn out to reelect President Obama.

All is fair, perhaps, in love, war and politics, and initiatives are, at their core, political questions. Consider all the maneuvering and lawsuits each election year over the titles and summaries that the attorney general gives each measure.

But the gamesmanship of legislative Democrats does little to inspire much confidence in their role as modern-day reformers. That's something for them to keep in mind as they prepare to ask voters to change the century-old mechanics of California's direct democracy.

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