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Editorial | Ballot referendums

Defending a democratic tradition

September 21, 2011

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IN 1911, California voters amended their constitution to give citizens the right of initiative and referendum - the power to pass or repeal laws via the ballot. After 100 years and numerous battles over propositions from tax cuts to gay marriage, one would think California legislators would have made their peace with their state’s vigorous embrace of direct democracy. But many are now attempting to undercut the ballot referendum process with hostile “reforms.’’ Thanks to Governor Jerry Brown, their efforts have been foiled.

Not every issue is best addressed through an up or down vote; there’s a reason legislators sometimes hammer out compromises. But at its best, direct democracy through ballot referendums helps to educate voters and promote civic engagement. Like California, Massachusetts has a long tradition of ballot initiatives that have helped to establish legislative priorities.

Brown did much to uphold this tradition in states across the country when he vetoed a bill that would have made it illegal for any petition circulator to be paid by the signature. (To collect the large number of signed petitions required to qualify a measure for the California ballot, proponents often hire circulators to solicit voters’ signatures outside shopping malls, stadiums, and other public places.) “It doesn’t seem very practical to me to create a system that makes productivity goals a crime,’’ Brown wrote in his veto message. That would only drive up the cost of circulating petitions, thereby “favoring the wealthiest interests.’’

So legislators attacked from another angle, passing a bill requiring anyone hired to circulate petitions to wear badges identifying themselves - in “no smaller than 30-point font print’’ - as paid signature gatherers. Their idea, presumably, was that if the petition process could be made more awkward, fewer initiatives would ever reach the ballot. Brown shot that one down too.

Legislators are often wary of ballot initiatives because they disrupt the usual processes of law-making. But that’s not always bad. Anyway, the changes Brown vetoed look less like reforms than an effort by politicians to find devious ways to thwart the entire process.