THE BLOG

Ballot Initiatives Gone Wild

01/22/2014 04:00 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2014

Here a ballot initiative, there a ballot initiative, everywhere in California a ballot initiative.

How did we get here? About a hundred years ago the processes of direct democracy spread across the country. States gave their citizens the ability to directly enact laws (via the ballot initiative), to directly repeal laws (via the referendum) and to oust elected officials (via the recall). The purpose of direct democracy is to empower average citizens and decrease the power than moneyed interests may have over elected officials. Sounds quaint, doesn't it?

Welcome to 2014, when the very special interests direct democracy was meant to guard against now direct and control those processes. And specifically, welcome to California, where we have not only ousted a governor (Gray Davis) via the recall, but where we frequently use the ballot initiative process. Want to change how many lawmakers it takes to pass the state's budget? Pass a ballot initiative. Want to change the definition of marriage? Pass a ballot initiative. Want to cut or increase taxes? Pass a ballot initiative. Want to change the penalties for criminal offenses? Once again, pass a ballot initiative.

This election cycle a few ballot initiatives in California have already made news. One would divide the Golden State into six states. Another would significantly alter pensions in California for public employees like nurses and teachers. Speaking of teachers, another proposal would alter the way they are fired.

Another proposal is designed to reduce healthcare costs, by in part altering how much healthcare providers can charge for services. Yet another would touch on the legalization of marijuana. At least two proposals are aimed at halting the high speed rail. And there are, as there always seem to be, a number of anti-abortion measures floating around.

Is this a problem? Well, most probably yes. Successful ballot initiatives often present legal problems and after expensive and time-consuming battles, some or all of these initiatives end up being invalidated by the courts. Other successful initiatives have unintended consequences that present problems for citizens and lawmakers for years to come.

What should we do about this? There are numerous smart solutions. Unfortunately, most, if not all, are unlikely to take hold because voters are loath to make changes which they perceive as giving up their power. Still, here are but four changes we should consider.

First, we should prohibit ballot initiatives on a number of topics, such as budgetary matters. Smart budgetary decisions require a comprehensive, holistic view of the budget, which has many working parts. When the voters are presented with a single initiative they, by necessity, make decisions in isolation. They are not often asked if they want lower taxes if it means they will have to cut certain programs, but only if they want lower taxes. Similarly, they are not often asked if they want more social programs if it means higher taxes, but only if they want more social programs.

Second, we should consider prohibiting constitutional initiatives. Some states already do this. A state's constitution should be an important governing document, not a place to tack everyone's favorite pet project (like prohibiting the use of gill nets -- Proposition 132 in 1990).

Third, we should consider voting on ballot initiatives less frequently. States should reflect on allowing ballot initiatives only during general elections, which are typically higher turnout elections. California recently enacted this change. States could take this a step further and permit ballot initiatives only on general election ballots in presidential or gubernatorial election years. When only a simple majority of the voters can pass a law completely outside of the legislative process, then it is certainly better when more than 20 percent or 30 percent of the voters show up on election law. Otherwise, it is conceivable that only 11 percent of the voters are enacting laws for all of the residents of a state.

Fourth, we should examine making it easier to alter successful initiatives. In California, unless a measure specifically states that it can be changed by the legislature, the only way to change initiatives is to pass another initiative. This is a burdensome task. We should provide lawmakers with the ability to alter, but not undermine, already-enacted initiatives. Perhaps lawmakers should be able to alter initiatives by a supermajority vote two years after their passage.

None of these solutions are perfect. They all present challenges. And these solutions arguably put more pressure on the legislative process, which has problems of its own. Still, let's take this one step at a time and reform the ballot initiative process, the process that typically fails to serve its purposes of reducing the influence of moneyed interests and empowering grassroots organizations.

This post originally appeared on Politix.