News and Comment

Local referendums run riot: lessons from California for the Coalition

Monday 4 October 2010

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‘We will give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue.’ – Coalition Government Agreement, May 2010

Direct democracy may seem like a good idea in principle, but the Coalition Government would do well to carefully consider the evidence from California before rolling out its reforms. In this post OPM’s Deborah Rozansky, a US citizen, gives a personal perspective on the dangers of referendum-itis.

Referendums. Really?

The current meltdown in the Golden State demonstrates that direct democracy is not a good way to run government. In only five of the past thirty years has the legislature been able to meet its deadline to produce a balanced state budget, and the state is virtually bankrupt. Part of the problem has to do with profligate spending commitments made during the boom years, but the problem also stems from the cumulative year-on-year effects of voter referendums. These measures restricted tax-raising at the same time as ring-fencing spending for special programmes, leaving little flexibility for state legislators to take more appropriate policy and funding decisions. Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the incumbent governor, has been able to break the logjam, to build the political consensus needed to repair what’s broken and to set a new course.

My absentee ballot for the General Election in California arrived in the post on Monday. Yes, as an American citizen, I continue to exercise my right and responsibility to vote, and for more than three hours last night I considered my choices carefully. As I signed and sealed my ballot envelope, my thoughts turned back to UK politics, and I found myself reflecting on the Coalition Government’s Civil Society proposals – for the California experience with direct democracy should give one pause.

The California ballot runs to two pages, with candidates for federal, state, county and local offices to choose from, judicial appointments to ratify and a whole raft of state and county ballot initiatives (voter referendums) to approve or reject. Accompanying the ballot paper was a 128-page pamphlet with statements from many (although not all) of the candidates and in-depth explanations for nine voter referendums. A second pamphlet had information about candidates for the city and county of San Diego, my ‘permanent’ home, along with another five voter referendums.

A right mess

The ballot told me a lot about the state of democracy in California. Fundamentally, it’s a mess, but no one knows how to fix it. The shrill tone of the candidates’ statements indicates how dysfunctional the politics truly are. No more business as usual in Sacramento, they claim. California’s economy is still precarious, and unemployment is high. State government is seen as corrupt, wasteful and untrustworthy, and career politicians are prone to fiscal mismanagement and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary citizen. The public are angry about the deterioration of public services, high taxes and uncontrollable state spending. They perceive the wealthy and big businesses getting special treatment.

Nothing illustrates the mess more than this year’s voter referendums. Two of the ballot initiatives are about who has the authority to redistrict constituencies and to define the principles for fair enfranchisement. Two more address revising the constitutional requirements for passing state budgets and taxes. Another four deal with the state’s ability to raise taxes or to collect fees, with a particular focus on business taxes and their impact on the economy, the environment and state infrastructure. (The final statewide initiative would legalise marijuana, but that’s for another post.)

‘Confuse them’

The ballot pamphlets describe the referendums using impartial information about their intended and fiscal effects. This information is accompanied by statements from proponents and opponents, strongly worded rebuttals as well as the actual text of the proposed laws in rather obtuse, legislative language. Curious and conscientious, I read the pamphlets from cover to cover. Admittedly, even with an advanced degree, I found it a challenge to discern what I, as a voter, was being asked to approve for some of the proposals, and I don’t think my confusion is a consequence of living too far away from my home state. Rather, something else – something more insidious – is at play.

Whether or not President Truman really said it, the statement ‘if you can’t convince them, confuse them’ applies here. These ballot initiatives are intentionally confusing. A simple web search reveals which special interests are supporting them, and a careful read of the legislative language raises doubts about their true intentions as well as their ultimate impact. Exasperated, I nearly voted ‘no’ on the whole lot.

I was originally an enthusiast of voter referendums. Years ago, I even gathered signatures to put measures on the ballot and campaigned for and against them. Now I’m more circumspect. Voters should not be left to make hard decisions about tax levies and constitutional changes, especially without understanding the full consequences or the trade-offs. In any case, isn’t that what the legislature is for?