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Happy ballot initiative anniversary, California

Man gathering signatures.
Man gathering signatures.
Flickr/anonymous redheads

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Under Hiram Johnson 100 years ago, Californians decided they would let direct democracy make the rules. The idea was to allow voters to propose statutes and make amendments to the state’s constitution through a petition process.

Over the century, however, this process that was intended to put voters first has been tangled in a web of partisan gridlock, corporate spending and a disproportionate voter turnout. It takes money and manpower to get on the ballot, and corporations have the resources to make it happen. It also takes voters to show up at the polls, which vary significantly depending on primary and general elections. In 2010, 5.7 million Californians voted in the primary, whereas 10.3 showed up for the general election – almost twice the amount of voters turn up for the general election than the primary. Because of this, some advocates propose that initiatives appear on the ballot once every two years, and only during the general election. Do you agree? Is the ballot initiative outdated? Is there such a thing as too much democracy? Is it time for California to amend the way we vote?

Notable measures approved by the ballot initiative:

- Prop. 98: In 1988, voters agreed to allocate 40% of the state’s budget to its public education system.
- Prop. 184: Also known as the “three strikes law,” Californians decided in 1994 that criminals could face life imprisonment without parole on their third offense.
- Prop. 140: In 1990, Californians limited the state assembly members to three two-year terms, and two four-year terms for state senators.


Joe Mathews, senior fellow, New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute