(originally published at Fox & Hounds Daily)
Who needs Halloween for a good fright when so many California ballot initiatives are posted on the Secretary of State’s website?
For the past week, I’ve been reading the full texts of initiatives – as well as their titles and summaries. The content of the measures and summaries aren’t that frightening on their face (though I’m not sure why the price of voting to end the death penalty – touted as a cost savings – is a $100 million hit to the general fund to create a special fund for the attorney general). Most of the titles and summaries seem fair and complete to this non-lawyer, and many of the initiatives seem thoughtfully drafted. But none of the initiatives are perfect—and that’s the problem.
In California, initiatives have to be perfect. It doesn’t say that in the constitution, of course, but it’s constitutional reality. This is the only place on earth where, once a statute is enacted by initiative, it can’t be undone without another vote of the people. Initiatives that are constitutional amendments are, once enacted, nearly impossible to reverse. California provides very little flexibility in fixing or amending initiatives after they’ve been filed. These realities give California the most inflexible – or powerful, depending on your perspective – initiative process in the known universe.
So when Californians vote to approve an initiative, they are effectively saying: this is perfect and should last forever. It will fit like a glove with the state’s complex governing and fiscal systems. It shouldn’t be amended or fixed, except by people who have millions to prosecute a new ballot measure campaign to change it.
Of course, voters aren’t told this in title and summary – even though it’s probably the most important fact about any initiative.
So here’s an idea: a new warning, right along with title and summary.
Something subtle like:
THIS INITIATIVE WON’T KILL YOU. BUT IT COULD OUTLIVE YOU, YOUR CHILDREN, AND YOUR MUTANT GREAT-GRANDCHILDREN IF THEY SURVIVE THE NUCLEAR WAR WITH MARS IN 2091. BECAUSE IT CAN’T BE ALTERED BY YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS, FOR ANY REASON, WITHOUT MILLIONS OF DOLLARS FROM RICH PEOPLE AND INTEREST GROUPS TO PAY FOR A CAMPAIGN TO CONVINCE THE VOTERS TO DO SO. (AND THE CHANGES TAKE EFFECT THEN ONLY IF THE JUDICIAL BRANCH IS COOL WITH IT). SO BEFORE YOU VOTE YES, ARE YOU SURE THIS THING IS PERFECT, DUDE?
Initiatives that explicitly permit legislative amendment wouldn’t have to carry a warning label. (Though it might be nice to add something like: CHILL, DUDE. IF THIS DOESN’T WORK, IT CAN BE FIXED PRETTY EASY).