Viewpoints

Brown, Newsom take a risk with own ballot measures

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks in May on behalf of a November ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana. A loss could badly damage his candidacy for governor in 2018.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks in May on behalf of a November ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana. A loss could badly damage his candidacy for governor in 2018. The Associated Press

Do you think Brexit was a singularly British folly, having little to do with California?

Think again. California is the global capital of Brexit-style votes, and this November’s ballot is littered with mini-Brexits.

They are better understood as a special kind of ballot measure – a plebiscite placed on the ballot not by citizens but by powerful politicians to serve their own needs. And plebiscites come with a curse: They tend to blow up in politicians’ faces.

There are hundreds of examples globally. Among the most famous was Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet’s 1988 plebiscite to extend his constitutional power; dissidents beat it and ended his rule.

In Brexit, the cursed politician was British Prime Minister David Cameron. He wanted his country to remain in the European Union but put the question to voters to quiet the anti-EU voices within his own party. He assumed he would win the vote. Instead, the British people voted to leave, and Cameron lost his job.

This dynamic should sound familiar to Californians. For a century, statewide elected officials have put their own measures on the ballot, and been hurt by defeat or hamstrung by the unintended consequences of victory. The biggest, most recent example was the defeat of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s four ballot initiatives in 2005. He saved his governorship only by repudiating his own effort.

While politicians in other states have damaged themselves with plebiscites, no place has been as profoundly cursed as California. One reason is that our state is the only place where a law made by ballot initiative can’t be changed except by another vote of the people – forcing even plebiscite-averse politicians to go to the ballot.

Indeed, California’s inflexible form of direct democracy – and a good part of the dysfunctional governing systems it has spawned – is itself a plebiscite curse. In 1911, Gov. Hiram Johnson held a plebiscite that established the initiative and referendum process.

This November’s ballot is getting criticism for its length – 17 statewide measures – but we should pay extra attention to measures placed on the ballot by elected officials.

Gov. Jerry Brown has his own plebiscite on the ballot to liberalize sentencing laws. With crime up in California and public safety a concern nationally, Republicans might defeat it and try to cripple the governor’s larger efforts to reduce the state’s prison population and better reintegrate former prisoners into communities.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is taking on the plebiscite curse with two initiatives – one to tighten gun controls and the other to legalize recreational marijuana. He’s using both measures to show leadership as part of his campaign for governor in 2018.

But his gun control measure has caused conflict with Democratic legislators pursuing similar measures in the Capitol. And if Newsom’s two plebiscites lose, it could badly damage his candidacy.

The dangers of plebiscites go beyond the risks to politicians and their policies. When powerful elected officials use the ballot for their own devices, they can raise questions about the credibility of our democracy. Attorney General Kamala Harris has faced criticism for writing favorable ballot titles and expediting legal reviews of plebiscites put forth by the governor and other allies. And the California Supreme Court recently allowed the governor’s sentencing plebiscite to make this year’s ballot despite extensive alterations to the measure that delayed previous initiatives. It seems direct democracy is more direct for insiders.

When political leadership loses credibility, risky political earthquakes can result. From Britain to California, the plebiscite is a curse that feeds on itself.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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