In the midst of California’s prolonged decline, it has become fashionable of late for fatalists to pronounce the state “ungovernable.” If that’s true, it took some doing. Not only is California a state where the government has contemplated regulating everything from the sale of Mylar balloons to whether high school students can buy Gatorade, it’s also a place where everyone gets to govern—thanks to a robust system of direct democracy.

Golden State voters can approve or reject public-policy changes at the ballot box through the use of the initiative and referendum. They can also remove unpopular elected officials with the less frequently employed recall, made famous when it chased out Governor Gray Davis in 2003. While nearly half of U.S. states have an initiative process of some kind, nowhere is it as central to the political process as in California, where, in 2010 alone, 14 issues appeared on the ballot. As a result, voters constitute a de facto fourth branch of government. This convoluted structure is no passing fancy, either: 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the initiative, the referendum, and the recall.

These measures were introduced in the salad days of the early Progressive movement, when California Governor Hiram Johnson (who would eventually serve as Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate on the Bull Moose presidential ticket of 1912) pressed for their implementation as a firewall against political domination by special interests—particularly those of the well-heeled railroads. Johnson’s defense of the proposals, delivered in his 1911 inaugural address, remains the best articulation of the rationale for California’s direct democracy:

I commend to you the proposition that, after all, the initiative and the referendum depend on our confidence in the people and in their ability to govern. The opponents of direct legislation and the recall, however they may phrase their opposition, in reality believe the people cannot be trusted. On the other hand, those of us who espouse these measures do so because of our deep-rooted belief in popular government, and not only in the right of the people to govern, but in their ability to govern; and this leads us logically to the belief that if the people have the right, the ability, and the intelligence to elect, they have as well the right, ability, and intelligence to reject or to recall.

While Johnson’s thesis has had its detractors in the century since direct democracy took hold in California, the most powerful rebuttal may have predated the progressive governor by over a century. Writing in Federalist No. 10, James Madison contrasted the ideal of direct democracy with that of a republic, noting that the latter could “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.”

For the average Californian, Madison’s exhortation of republican virtues may sound naive. Far from being perceived as stewards of “the public good,” the state legislature’s most recent approval ratings have hovered around 14 percent—and that’s an improvement from last year, when they reached single digits for the first time in history. By contrast, recent polling by the Public Policy Institute of California puts public approval of the initiative process at a hearty 75 percent. Does the ineffectiveness of the state legislature prove the need for direct democracy? Or is it the initiative process itself that renders the Golden State’s elected officials inert?

The ability to resolve thorny policy issues at the ballot box has clearly acted as a safety valve when politicians seemed to be ignoring public discontent. That was the story of Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative restricting property taxes that has saved Californians more than half a trillion dollars in the decades since its implementation. And it’s also been the case with social issues that would have otherwise been ignored by the state’s liberal establishment, such as prohibitions on racial preferences in state college admissions, bilingual education, and gay marriage—all of which passed handily at the ballot box.

Expediting policy shifts, however, is a relatively modest benefit in exchange for the dramatic cost of the initiative process: inducing widespread public-sector sclerosis. Rather than simply providing an outlet for popular grievances, direct democracy actually annexes huge swaths of policymaking from the legislature. When voters mandate a policy directive from the ballot box, the legislature has no way to override the decision, even by supermajority. As a result, any issue that voters weigh in on directly becomes their exclusive purview in perpetuity—amendable or repealable only by another popular vote. This also has the ironic effect of slowing down the democratic process that the initiative system is supposed to make more responsive, ensuring that policy shifts can only come on election days spread years apart. And many of the ballot measures take the form of constitutional amendments, a trend that has given California the unenviable distinction of having the third-longest constitution in the world, after India and (believe it or not) Alabama. Because altering the state’s foundational political charter only requires a simple majority, California ends up inhabiting a bizarro world where it’s relatively easy to amend the constitution but can be nearly impossible to alter basic public policy.

As is usually the case with Golden State governance, the worst results are economic. A host of ballot initiatives—most notably Proposition 98, which voters passed in 1988 to require that at least 40 percent of the state’s general fund be spent on elementary and secondary education—have laid down spending mandates that lock up huge portions of the state’s treasury. As much as 85 percent of California’s budget is allocated before the legislature even has a chance to set fiscal priorities. Thus, when budget crises hit—as they have with metronomic regularity in recent years—state legislators are left trying to dig out of the hole with as little as 15 cents on the dollar. At the same time, the spending binge continues at the polls: the state’s voters authorized more than $85 billion in bonds during the last decade.

The economic fallout brings the shortcomings of ballot-box policymaking into sharp relief. Time and again, California voters are asked to approve outlays for emotionally resonant issues—mental-health treatment, school improvements, funding children’s hospitals—and time and again, they sign off. But the right to vote on an issue is always untethered from any notion of fiscal responsibility. In most cases, voters aren’t required to find a funding mechanism, whether in the form of spending cuts or tax hikes. They’re simply asked if they’d like to be charitable on someone else’s dime. The result is the unsustainable mix of opposition to tax hikes and enthusiasm for new spending projects that has put the state in its current fiscal morass.

The appeal of the initiative process has always been grounded in a healthy skepticism of California’s elected officials, a trait which has also been on display in the state’s embrace of term limits, supermajority requirements for tax increases (and, until last year, passing a budget), and a citizens’ panel to control redistricting. But there comes a point at which checking government’s excesses veers into obstructing government’s functionality. Direct democracy in California has passed that point. If its advocates hope to see it reach a 200th anniversary, they need to scale back their ambitions.


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