Polls show California Governor Gavin Newsom leading tomorrow’s recall election. But that doesn’t mean his political future will be unscathed.
Over the past century, however, the deployment of these tools has been a striking illustration of the law of unintended consequences. The ability of voters – or, more precisely, a diverse set of interests with large sums of money – to bring laws, constitutional amendments, and mid-term mandate holders to the judgment of the electorate has distorted the process. government beyond recognition.
And while the recall itself is surprisingly undemocratic – the way math works, Newsom could take 49% of the vote and be kicked out, while Elder or another contender could then replace it with 20% – the picture more of these “” democracies “suggest something else: They gave an aggrieved population the power to turn intense anger into action. And in California, it turned politics in a decidedly conservative direction.
What is Hiram Johnson and his progressive colleagues did in 1911 was to make California a state where voters had direct access to the political process. The tools he gave them, shaped by Johnson and the temporarily progressive legislature, included the initiative of the ballot (end of the legislature to propose laws and constitutional revisions on the ballot), the referendum (giving voters the power annul the legislation) and recall (dismissal of elected officials and mid-term judges).
And the consequences, more often than not, have been setbacks for the ideas Johnson hoped to promote.
With a low bar to allow to put a proposal on the ballot – the governor may face a challenge if only 12% of the electorate signs a petition – and with paid petition collectors now a kind of cottage industry , all kinds of proposals invade California. ballot, and for years. A typical voter guide now covers roughly the length of the budget reconciliation bill.
Often the battle between interests boils down to eight or nine digits, as viewers are bombarded with almost incomprehensible arguments about opaque worded initiatives. Next year, Californians will vote on issues ranging from the regulation of flavored tobacco to sports betting.
In terms of governance, this puts voters in the difficult position of having to become instant experts on everything from stem cell research to criminal convictions to commercial property taxes (all initiatives on the 2020 ballot). From an ideological standpoint, the most important consequence of these tools is the frequency with which they have been used for anti-progressive causes.
In 1964, homeowners feared that “fair housing” laws would lower the value of their homes. So while Lyndon Johnson carried the state with nearly 60% of the vote, 65% of voters approved a constitutional amendment to repeal fair housing laws statewide.
In 1978, rising property values caused property tax assessments to skyrocket. That spring, voters moored on Proposition 13, crushing property taxes and forcing super-majorities to pass any tax hikes, putting the state in a near-permanent fiscal crisis, eased only when Democrats won a super-majority in Sacramento decades later. .
In 1986, as violent crime rose steadily over the decade, voters removed three Supreme Court justices – including Chief Justice Rose Bird – for pushing back the death penalty.
And in 2008, the same electorate who voted for the first black president by 3 million votes chose to change the state’s constitution by banning same-sex marriage. (This law was struck down by the courts before the Supreme Court considered same-sex marriage a constitutional right.)
It is important to note that, unlike the potentially anti-majority outcome of Newsom’s recall, all of these measures won the approval of a majority – sometimes an overwhelming majority – of voters.
What sets California apart from almost every other state is that elsewhere, temporary jumps in public temperature lack a political mechanism to turn disaffection into tangible results – at least, not in the short term. In California, on the other hand, you have a choice of several ways to bring about sudden change: either finding an interest with deep pockets to shape public opinion through a massive advertising campaign, or the chance to participate in an event that will trigger genuine popular anger. Newsom managed to deliver the right opportunity by ordering closures and then attending a no-mask birthday party at one of the country’s most expensive restaurants.
If Hiram Johnson and his allies existed today, the current use of their tools for a more democratic system might sound like a familiar saying: drain the swamp.
Of course, by next year, proposals to protect alligators and preserve historic wetlands could well be on the ballot in California. Or to hunt them down and develop the land. And voters, whether they like it or not, will have to sort it out.