Can we have too much democracy?

06/30/2021

In 2016, my statewide ballot for the general election asked me to weigh in on 17 different initiatives ranging from constitutional amendments and tax hikes to condom use and the death penalty. My voter guide topped out at a whopping 224 pages. Four years later, it was rent control, labor policy, voting rights, data privacy and kidney dialysis regulations. How, I wonder, am I expected to be fluent in both tax policy and kidney dialysis? It begs the question: How much is too much democracy? 

The turn of the 20th century was a golden age for progressive politicians and marked California’s entry into direct democracy with a confusing system of initiatives, referendums and recalls. It was all part of a nationwide push for policies whose goals were to stem the influence of big business in politics.

Here in California, the bogeyman was the Southern Pacific Railroad, a behemoth created by the so-called Big Four: Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, the powerful railroad tycoons who funded the western portion of the transcontinental railroad. Southern Pacific, it was said at the time, had the state’s senate, supreme court and both Republican and Democratic Parties safely tucked into its back pocket, doing anything and everything to maintain its profits and privilege.

In 1910, Hiram Johnson, a bombastic yet progressive assistant district attorney in San Francisco, ran for governor on a reform ticket advanced by Republican activists. Although he had never held elected office, Johnson adeptly used Southern Pacific as his foil. Furious with its rampant bribery of state officials and its habit of charging higher shipping fees to cover the cost of its bribes, Johnson made reform his focus. He promised to “kick the Southern Pacific Railroad out of politics” and it propelled him to victory.

With an impressive mandate, Johnson went about instituting a bundle of political reforms. Many of them were righteous, including women’s suffrage, restrictions on child labor, worker’s compensation and free textbooks in public schools. But it was direct democracy, specifically the initiative, referendum and recall, that Johnson believed would break the back of Southern Pacific and deal a lethal blow to corruption and influence-peddling. 

In his inaugural address, Johnson stated that, “In some form or other, nearly every governmental problem that involves the health, the happiness, or the prosperity of the State has arisen because some private interest has intervened or has sought for its own gain to exploit either the resources or the politics of the State.” He went on to say about his package of voter reforms that “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 is where Johnson and I part ways. His belief in an intelligent electorate that can participate equally in the heavy lift of crafting state law was a total aberration both then and now, with the heavy influence of the same opaque special interests that he tried to disrupt over a century ago. 

In 2020, $785 million was spent by who knows to influence your vote on just 12 ballot initiatives, whose titles alone often implied the opposite of what they in fact promised. Each election cycle, more and more money is pumped into thousands of hours of opposing advertisements that never get to the truth in those 15- or 30-second T.V. spots. But don’t worry, your voter guide has the full text of these proposed laws, crafted for a seasoned law professional looking for an exercise in dense legal speak.

Even qualifying an initiative for the ballot requires a pair of extra-deep pockets that many principled organizations don’t have. The average cost to capture just one signature in 2020 was $7.22. Based on the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative, the average cost to get an issue on the ballot was over $4 million. The bad news is that given the upfront costs, initiatives up for debate are hijacked by wealthy corporations and special-interest groups often to protect their profits with the pretense of doing some amount of public good. It’s exactly what Johnson railed against.

When so many important issues are brought before the voters in an election cycle, the electorate is easily overwhelmed and there is little inclination or time to complete the research needed to cast an informed vote. And the special interests know it. Another consequence, unintended or otherwise, of direct democracy is to tie the hands of our duly elected officials with bad policy that can’t be unwound.  

In a fitting twist of irony, Hiram Johnson also addressed the volume of decision making in his inaugural address. He said, “The most advanced thought in our nation has reached the conclusion that we can best avoid blind voting and best obtain the discrimination of the electorate by a short ballot.” He obviously hasn’t seen a recent voter guide. 

Governor Johnson, I suspect you never would have guessed that the train track would come full circle with formidable companies like Uber happily replacing Southern Pacific to game the system and get what they want. Your motivation, to give power back to the people, was honorable. If only we were smart enough to know how to use it.  

 

Amos Klausner lives in San Geronimo and serves on the local school board.