Not the 21st century, mind you. But South Dakota, where American direct democracy began in 1898, is considering whether to change its woefully outdated laws that permit initiative sponsors to write their own descriptions of what their measure would do. In the world outside South Dakota, titles and summaries have been written by public officials who are supposed to be neutral. (In California, it's the attorney general). More details of the proposal from this story in the Mitchell Republic.
Last fall's initiative campaigns in Colorado saw an extraordinary change in the ballot at the last minute. Labor unions agreed to withdraw from the ballot a package of initiatives that targeted businesses in exchange for a promise by business groups to contribute to a labor effort to defeat three business-backed initiatives. The four labor-backed measures technically remained on the ballot, but under Colorado law, without the support of their labor sponsors, the initiatives were a dead letter. The votes cast on those initiatives didn't count.
To some, it looked like business groups were bribing the labor unions to pull the measures off the ballot. So two Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to withdraw a ballot initiative in exchange for money or any promise of value. The bill was defeated in committee last week on a party line vote, the Rocky Mountain News reports.
In the United States, ballot initiatives usually appear "naked" on the ballot. That is to say, voters decide yes or no on a particular statute or constitutional amendment, and that's it. There's only one choice.
Most of the rest of the world doesn't do things this way. In Switzerland, where modern direct democracy was invented, voters get more of a choice. They not only can vote yes or no on an initiative, but they also get to pass a judgment on a legislative counter-proposal to each initiative. And they can decide which of the two meausures-- the initiative or the counter-proposal--takes effect in the event that both are approved by voters.
But change may be coming in Oregon. The possibility of a counter-proposal is part of state legislation, now being debated, that would require that initiatives go to the legislature first before they appear on the ballot. If approved, the legislation would give lawmakers the option of approving the initiative, doing nothing and letting the initiative go on the ballot, or offering a counter-proposal.
There's a lot of talk about new ballot measures circulating in California and other Western states. The California Teachers Assn., for example, has approved circulation of its initiative that would hike the state sales tax to create a new, protected fund for schools. But that initiative isn't in petition circulators' hands yet, according to a survey I conducted this morning. In fact, signature gatherers appear to be in wait and see mode. There are a handful of local measures. In Sacramento, circulators were just told to turn in signatures on a measure that would seek to put more power in the office of Mayor Kevin Johnson. But that's about it, for now. I'll check back again in a week, when, various circulators assure me, they expect to be busy.
Political consultants usually prefer ballot measure campaigns to candidate campaigns. The money's often better. The workload is lighter. And ballot initiatives don't have spouses. Top Democratic -- Mark Fabiani, Chris Lehane, Ace Smith -- and Republican -- Steve Schmidt, Adam Mendelsohn -- consultants, all based in California, have formed a company to pursue ballot measure business. And not just in California. More details via the Sacramento Bee.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Congressman Devin Nunes, a Republican from the Central Valley, describes California as an economic basket case and outlines, by my count, five ballot initiatives that he believes are needed to fix the state. Why should anyone care? Because Nunes, while little known to most Californians, is one of California's more thoughtful Republican politicians, and he has the ability to raise money to pursue at least a couple of these ideas at the ballot.
Ballot initiatives sometimes are not just measures. They're cottage industries, with sponsors filing the same or similar initiatives all over the country. Think of term limits, or eminent domain protection, or the Humane Society's many animal protection measures.
Now there's a new genre coming: the preservation of "secret ballot" union elections. The context: Unions have long complained -- with good reason -- that the current system for organizing workers gives corporations too much power. That process is built around secret ballot elections, but the process has such loose time limits and allows for endless legal appeals -- and the intimidation and firing of workers in the meantime -- that unions have soured on the secret ballot. In its place, labor wants federal legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act. Backed by Democrats, including President-elect Obama, EFCA would allow unions attempting to organize a workplace to win formal recognition without a secret ballot vote. They would have to gather signed cards from a majority of people in the workplace -- a process generally known as card check. Some employers currently choose to recognize unions who gather cards, but most insist on the secret ballot election. It's their choice. EFCA would flip that, giving the unions the choice -- cards or secret ballot -- in how they organize a workplace.
It's not just California. The Associated Press looks at how voter-approved initiatives are adding to the budget headaches in several cash-strapped states.
The headlines from this morning's new Public Policy Institute of California poll all focus on Prop 8. But there isn't much surprising in those numbers. Evangelicals and Republicans overwhelmingly supported Prop 8. No kidding. The poll also documented the intensity gap between Prop 8's supporters (74 percent considered the outcome of Prop 8 very important) and its opponents (59 percent considered the outcome very important).
The conservative Weekly Standard takes a look at Prop 107, the 2006 Arizona initiative that failed to ban same-sex marriage, and Prop 102, the 2008 Arizona ban that passed. What was the difference? The 2006 ban would have barred domestic partnerships. The 2008 initiative protected domestic partnerships. Also, the Standard quotes a leader of the no campaign as saying that fundraising was weak because California's No on Prop 8 campaign soaked up so much money. If that's true, it means the disastrous No on 8 campaign in California was responsible not only for the setback for marriage equality in California but also for the defeat in Arizona.