06/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'Vote No on Everything' Urges Changes to California Proposition System

In the special election held last week in California, five ballot initiatives designed to temporarily fix the state's crippling budget crisis failed by an overwhelming 2:1 margin. The voters of California sent yet another unequivocal message to Sacramento that they want their leaders and legislators to do the jobs they were elected and paid $116,000 a year to do. The problem is, they can't. The very system used to send this resounding electoral message is at least partially to blame for the state's problems; but a budding grassroots movement seeks to change that.

The California initiative process began in 1911 as a way for ordinary citizens to expropriate control of corrupt state government from the undue influence of special interests -- namely, the Southern Pacific Railroad. Sadly, however, the system has since become something its creators never intended: an unwieldy, untenable wolf that has subverted the deliberative nature of representative democracy; tied the hands of elected officials charged with controlling the state's purse strings; and undermined traditional court protections of minorities by eliminating fundamental civil rights -- and all via mostly narrow majorities in popular votes.

Enter Los Angeles-based physician Reed Levine, who recently started the web-based grassroots movement VoteNoOnEverything (VNOE). According to the organization's newly launched website, the goal is to educate voters about the California proposition system in order to encourage more informed voting choices and, ultimately, to revise or eliminate the system altogether.

In an interview with this author, Levine explained, "The system as it stands now in California is a broken system that is in desperate need of change." While conceding the initiative process probably has some role to play in government, he cautions that "in its current form, it's wasteful of taxpayer money, it's wasteful of campaign money and it's threatening civil liberties." It appears he's right.

The unnecessary special election last week cost the financially strapped state nearly $24 million and political donors spent almost that much to influence voters. Moreover, as I've written about before, California became the first state in American history to rescind a civil right of a minority by popular vote when voters narrowly passed Prop 8, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Of course, in a constitutional republic, the civil rights of a minority should never be subjected to a popular vote because the minority will lose almost every time. And the ruling today by the state Supreme Court upholding Prop 8 while allowing existing same-sex marriages to stand only further muddies the constitutional waters and begs the question: "if civil rights can be eliminated by a simple majority vote, why even have a constitution at all?"

"The history of California's Constitution is interesting because it's been changed so much," Levine explains. Indeed, a little historical perspective demonstrates its cumbersome complexity. The US Constitution has been amended only 27 times in its entire 222-year history. By contrast, California's Constitution has been changed -- either by referendum or initiative -- over 540 times in 130 years, making it the third longest constitution in the world and an unmanageable behemoth that one writer called "the perfect example of what a constitution ought not to be."

Arguably the most infamous and influential change to the document came in the form of Prop 13, a 1978 people's initiative that capped property taxes while limiting the legislature's ability to raise revenue even in a time of fiscal crisis -- the very precipice upon which the state now finds itself. Because of the strictures in Prop 13 put in place by the people, tax increases of even one penny must earn a 2/3 majority vote in both houses of the legislature, while the people themselves can pass a spending measure of any amount by merely a simple majority plus one. "It's messy. Very messy," Levine says. And it gets messier.

It's no secret California's economy is so large that if the state were an independent nation, it would rank among the ten largest economies in the entire world. And yet the current initiative process allows ordinary citizens to bypass two deliberative bodies of elected officials by enacting compulsory spending measures with only a simple majority vote -- despite little to no education or understanding of the implications of the vote. As recently as 2004, a study confirmed that nearly one-third of all money spent by the state legislature was mandatory spending put in place by voter-approved initiatives.

In a state as populated as California with as large an economy, Levine points out, "the details of the issues become so complicated that you cannot reasonably expect an electorate that has many other concerns, and often doesn't take the time to look into it, to adequately understand the issues to make an intelligent decision." And he's right. A state that repeatedly faces financial crisis can ill-afford to continue turning over control of tens of billions of dollars to election-weary voters with only the most cursory grasp of the spending's consequences.

As a result, VNOE urges voters on its website to take action:

We encourage you to raise your internal standard and make your default to VOTE NO ON EVERYTHING. Make sure that you understand that a given proposition is very important and fair and that you understand exactly how the money is being spent before you are willing to even consider voting yes.

VOTE NO ON EVERYTHING by default. Make them work for your "yes". Don't vote YES unless you understand fully the cost and implications of that proposition. Don't pay attention to the 30-second ads on TV....


Talk to your friends and family this. Talk to everyone you know about this. In many ways, propositions are more important than who you vote to send to Washington. Your vote directly creates law. Your vote directly spends taxpayer money. Your vote defines the rights of your fellow citizens

Hoping that voters will ignore 30-second advertising designed to appeal to voters' emotions over their reason, Levine wants individuals to "reset their baseline vote to NO" and encourage others to do the same while discussing the need to fix or eliminate the proposition system. Although the organization is only in its infancy, word is spreading. The group's Facebook page already has nearly 900 members, there are chapter presidents in eight other states and Levine has been asked to speak about the organization's focus at campuses across the country. "I've had so many people respond well and send me emails... and say 'you know, I've never really thought about it like that, but it really had an impact on me.'"

Given that an overwhelming majority of initiatives pass or fail by narrow margins, the task of effecting change may not be as daunting as it seems at first blush. VNOE has to reach just enough reasonably minded voters and convince them to vote in a more informed way. "It's not a complicated idea," Levine says. "It's basically a willingness to admit that you don't know enough about the topic. I can do that and I hope other people can."

I hope so too.