Prof. James Fishkin has an op-ed piece in the New York Times:
One hundred years ago today, California voters added the ballot initiative to the State Constitution, allowing citizens to use petitions to bring proposed statutes and constitutional amendments for a public vote.
In the article Fishkin entwines two themes. On the one hand, according to Fishkin, multiple cycles of legislation via the initiative system have encumbered California with various laws that cannot be overturned by the legislature, and make California “virtually ungovernable”. He cites the two-thirds rule for raising taxes, mandatory funds allocation (40% to education), the “three strikes law” and term limits for legislators. (He also originally cited a two-thirds rule for passing the budget – this reference was removed from the article since last year Proposition 25 eliminated this rule in favor of passage by regular majority.)
The other theme is the troubles with the Proposition system itself – supposedly the cause for the passage of the problematic laws.
Direct democracy in California was born in the hopes of bringing the people into the governance process, but it has led to a kind of audience democracy. Voters have become consumers of television sound-bite campaigns and new-media messaging, not authors of the laws they give to themselves. It was supposed to take the role of money out of politics but it has, instead, created a vast appetite for advertising. Getting on the ballot costs millions of dollars to pay for professional signature gatherers because the threshold of signatures required is so high (5 percent of the number of voters who turned out in the last election for statutes, and 8 percent for constitutional amendments). So instead of the process being open to everyone, it is open mostly to those organized interests that can pay the entrance fee.
The public complains about the lack of transparency in initiatives, often wondering what interests are really financing a proposal or the opposition to it. It complains about the complexity of propositions, sometimes not being clear what a no vote or a yes vote really means. And it complains about the torrent of ads, often misleading, untrue or sensational. Lastly, voters complain about not really knowing what a proposal will cost and how it will be paid for.
Enter deliberative polling:
My colleagues and I heard all of these concerns when we gathered a scientific sample of more than 400 of the state’s registered voters in Torrance over the weekend of June 24-26, to discuss the ballot initiative and other elements of California governance. Our project, known as What’s Next California?, was the first statewide deliberative poll — a poll that gathers a scientific sample of respondents to answer questions both before and after they have had a chance to deliberate competing arguments and trade-offs. It provides a window on what voters think of direct democracy and what changes they would, and would not, support. Despite the evident problems, California voters have more confidence in the ballot initiative than they do in other elements of their state government. After spending a weekend immersing themselves in the issues and questioning competing experts about possible reforms, 65 percent of the sample expressed disappointment with California’s state government in general and 70 percent expressed disappointment in the Legislature, but only 37 percent were disappointed in the ballot initiative.
They do think the [initiative] system needs reform, but in many cases not the reforms championed by policy elites. The popularity of proposals to involve the Legislature in the initiative process sank once voters in our poll discussed their implications. After deliberating, they did not want the Legislature to be able to place a counter-measure on the ballot or to amend an initiative that has passed, or even to remove an initiative from the ballot by enacting it into law. They held the Legislature in low regard (at an approval rate of only 14 percent). They viewed the ballot initiative as “the people’s process,” and they wanted the Legislature to keep its hands off it.
The role of deliberation in this case is questionable considering the low approval rate of the legislature. It seems quite unlikely that a reform proposal along those lines would be seen favorably by the voters – with or without the benefit of deliberation.
There was, however, strong support for requiring the names of the top five contributors for and against a measure to be published in the ballot pamphlet and for requiring ballot measures with new expenditures to indicate how they will be paid for. And there was majority support for lowering the threshold voting requirement in the Legislature for new taxes from two-thirds to 55 percent — a surprising willingness to reconsider the best-known aspect of Proposition 13. Regardless of party, the people wanted transparency and accountability and they wanted government to be able to make decisions.
Again, the regular poll cited above shows similar opinions, thus making those finding insufficient basis for the Fishkin’s claim that deliberative polls would produce better judgment than the initiative process as it exists today:
These are reforms that people support once they really think through their implications. A real reform of the initiative process would let the people’s considered judgments — after a process of deliberation, and not just yes or no — set the agenda, not influential special interests that have the money to collect the petitions.
Fishkin ends with what appears to be a vague proposal for reform:
Something like this happened in the first democracy, in ancient Athens, where a deliberating microcosm chosen by lot, the Council of 500, set the agenda for the votes by everyone in the assembly. If the ballot initiative process is to survive for another century, it must take into account the considered judgments of voters coming together to deliberate hard choices and not just cast a vote based on sound bites. If this succeeds it will help bring California much closer to the ideal that voters were striving for 100 years ago: legislation genuinely initiated by the people.
This proposal seems somewhat of a non-sequitur to the thrust of the preceding article. Did the deliberators in Fishkin’s poll get to set the agenda? If so, how? It seems that they got to choose between various items presented to them by the poll organizers or by the “competing experts”. And even if the modern-day Council of 500 gets to set the agenda, what about those problems with the initiative process that do not have to do with setting the agenda – the soundbites and ads? Leaving the final decision as a mass political activity leaves all those problems unattended.
Finally, what about that unpopular legislature – seeing that its approval rating is much lower than that of the initiative system, doesn’t it seem that the first order of business should be to deal with this institution?
Fishkin’s Center for Deliberative Democracy in Stanford links to a PBS Newhour documentary about the What’s Next California? deliberative poll: