I got to California on Sunday, the very same day that the world was stunned by the news that Colombia’s voters had by the tiniest of margins (50.2 percent to 49.7 percent) rejected a peace deal that had been laboriously negotiated to bring to an end that country’s 52-year-long war against the Marxist revolutionary group known as the FARC. And what was one the first things that I saw on my arrival? Dueling billboards, for and against, Proposition 61.
I’d never heard of Prop. 61, which isn’t surprising since I haven’t lived in California–my home state–in decades. But then over dinner, I asked my relatives, who do live in California, about Prop. 61 and they had no idea either. I gather from a quick Google search that it would “ban state agencies from paying more for a prescription drug than the lowest price the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays for that same drug.” The drug industry is very opposed and has spent tens of millions of dollars in advertising to defeat it. But how on earth is an average person, who is not a full-time legislative analyst, supposed to evaluate the merits of this complex proposal?
Especially when it is but one of 17 initiatives on the November ballot covering subjects from marijuana legalization to the repeal of the death penalty. That is apparently the average number of measures California voters have had to decide every election since 1996.
Enough! What is the point of having a representative democracy if all of the major decisions are being made by the people themselves, bypassing their elected representatives? There’s a good reason the Founding Fathers did not create rule by plebiscite–they valued the deliberative process of the legislature. Heck, the Founders were so wary of the brute passions of the people that they even mandated indirect election of senators–they were originally chosen by state legislatures. It was not until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 that senators became directly elected.
This was one of the reforms pushed by early 20th century Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson and Hiram Johnson to make government more accountable to the people and less corrupt. Another such reform was creating ballot measures of the kind that now suffuse the California ballot. Only now the whole proposition process has itself been deeply corrupted by big money and special interests; it takes a major investment to either pass or block many of these ballot measures.
One can see the case for occasionally holding a referendum on a question of national import such as Brexit or the peace accord with FARC. But routinely holding referenda on matters both complex and minor is counterproductive, inefficient, and misguided. If I could pass one initiative on the California ballot it would be to abolish all further initiatives and force lawmakers to do the hard work of governing themselves.