Reining in Out-of-Control Democracy

The L.A. Times reports today that Democrats in the California Legislature are pushing a bill to have ballot initiatives appear only in general elections. Their argument is that having important laws passed via initiative in primaries -- when turnout is low, and so a tiny portion of the electorate can determine the state's fate -- doesn't serve anyone's interests.

Republicans, predictably, are outraged:

Republican critics of the proposal call it a political move driven by organized labor, aimed at thwarting a pair of ballot measures targeted for June 2012 — one that would place limits on state spending and another that seeks to curb political donations by unions. The spending measure already is on the June ballot, and backers of the union-dues measure are gathering signatures in hopes of qualifying for the spring election.

"This is an egregious, self-interested move by Democrats and the unions who support them to try to alter the Constitution to give themselves a political advantage," GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said.

Maybe it is self-interested on Democrats' part. After all, they're politicians, and politicians tend to do what's in their political interest. The Republicans are thinking in self-interested terms too, of course -- as the party that relies more on wealthier voters, they usually do better when turnout is low. But it's almost impossible to devise an argument for why initiatives ought to appear in primaries.

The California election system is a nightmare for voters, not only because of the plethora of initiatives they have to decide on in every election but also because of the multitude of offices they have to vote for. In 2008, for instance, the ballot in San Francisco was so complex -- including a total of 34 separate state and local initiatives and votes for offices like the members of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board -- that the pamphlet the elections office sent to voters before the election explaining all of it ran to an incredible 268 pages (I wrote about it here). No voter, no matter how informed, could possibly be expected to render a considered judgment on all that.

You can argue against any move to limit that madness by saying, "You're trying to restrict democracy!" But there has to be a limit somewhere. We wouldn't want public officials to have to get approval from the voters every time they wanted to buy a new pen. The question is where the limit lies. And no sane person would say that California has achieved the right level of citizen involvement in the crafting of laws. So it's good that California Democrats are trying to rein in out-of-control democracy. Even if it might be in their self-interest.