(Bloomberg View) — 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 Medicaid funding 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: