THE ISSUE: Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 202, which moves all future ballot initiatives to the November general election, when voter turnout is higher. "The idea of direct democracy is to involve as many voters as possible," Brown wrote in signing the bill. A good call?
Is Brown right? Should state limit initiatives to the November ballot?
Ben Boychuk: Heavens, no!
Nobody really believes Jerry Brown signed SB 202 in the service of democracy, greater voter participation, and all-around "good government," right?
The Bee's own news story made the bill's purpose plain in the first clause of the first sentence of the lead paragraph: "In a huge victory for organized labor." SB 202 serves union ends first by moving ballot initiative campaigns to general elections, when their supporters are more likely to be out in force.
Second, a more crowded ballot would make it easier to defeat the rare, laudable reform by giving uninformed voters reason simply to vote "no" on everything. That's what I would do, and I pay attention to this stuff.
Obviously, Brown could not be so explicit about the rank political reasons for signing SB 202, which incidentally also moves to November 2014 an initiative that would establish a spending limit and create a state "rainy day" fund.
Wait a minute. Incidentally? Could it be that the reason for this whole goo-goo sham of strengthening direct democracy was to put off a measure meant to impose some fiscal discipline on the spendthrift Legislature?
According to Brown, SB 202 "restores the original understanding of constitutional law that initiatives were to be considered at a general election or at a special election called for critical questions requiring swift resolution by the people." He added, "this was historic practice for more than fifty years."
The nods to original intent and tradition are a nice touch, especially since it was Brown acting in his capacity as secretary of state nearly 40 years ago who changed the practice. And if it just so happens that Democratic voters turn out in larger numbers to defeat a much-needed fiscal reform in 2014, well, call it serendipity.
Look, I'm no fan of direct democracy. I've argued in these pages that the initiative process has contributed to California's dysfunction by encouraging voters and legislators alike to shirk their duties. And for every Proposition 13 or 209 that limits government's power, there are a dozen propositions to wreak havoc on Californians' lives and livelihoods.
But let's not kid ourselves. SB 202 is a phony fix written with special interests in mind.
The secretary of state's office this week cleared for circulation a petition to place a referendum overturning SB 202 on the ballot next year. Organizers need 504,760 signatures by Jan. 5. With a presidential election and dozens of ballot measures contending for voters' attention, lots of luck with that.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. (www.city-journal.org/california
Pia Lopez: Heavens, yes!One hundred years ago this month, the people of California established the initiative process, a form of direct democracy borrowed from Switzerland. From the beginning, initiatives were on the November ballot.
That's when the largest, most representative electorate comes out to vote. Progressive Era reformers understood that big changes should express the view of the broadest base of voters.
The California Constitution is clear on this point: Initiatives are to be submitted to the voters "at the next general election" after the measures qualify or at a special election called by the governor (Article II, sections 8 and 9).
Neither the state constitution nor the Elections Code permits initiatives to appear on the June primary ballot.
Twice in California history, initiatives appeared on the June primary ballot 1932 and 1970 because they coincided with a special election. The June 1970 primary election, for example, was a "consolidated special election" to submit bond measures to the voters.
How did we get to routine June primary initiative ballots? That big change happened when Gov. Jerry Brown was secretary of state.
He placed a "clean environment" initiative on the June 1972 primary ballot without a special election. The Center for Governmental Studies, in a 2008 study, said this may have been "simple administrative error" that occurred "apparently without anyone realizing that such a practice was not sanctioned by law or the constitution."
Brown then did a repeat placing his campaign spending initiative on the June 1974 ballot to coincide with his effort to win the Democratic nomination for governor.
Since then, the error has turned into normal practice.
So what's wrong with having initiatives on the June primary ballot?
Primary elections exist to select party nominees and depend on which offices are being contested. Turnout is lower and less diverse than in general elections. In California, primary election turnout has been around 30 percent of eligible voters since the late 1980s.
Ben doesn't like limiting initiatives to the November general election because, he writes, that's when union "supporters are more likely to be out in force." But that's just a smokescreen. California has only 2.4 million union members of a total 23.6 million eligible voters.
Ben's really saying that initiative promoters should be able to choose a smaller, more partisan electorate for selected primaries not the most representative electorate.
It is poetic justice that Brown should sign Senate Bill 202, because it "restores the original understanding of constitutional law" that initiatives should go on the November ballot undoing the four decades of erroneous practice that he started.
Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.