CAN AN OUT-OF-CONTROL GOVERNMENT BE REINED IN?
It may well be that the most important election in the history of California took place on October 10, 1911. That’s when voters approved Proposition 7 and Proposition 8, two reform measures that gave California voters the power of the initiative, the referendum and the recall.
These reforms were placed on the ballot by the newly elected Legislature that was swept into office along with Governor Hiram Johnson. Proposition 7 made California the 10th state to allow voters to have the tools of direct democracy to change the law.
At the same time, Proposition 8 gave Californians a process to recall elected officials. That measure passed with the approval of 76.8 percent of voters.
As a result of these early 20th century reforms, Californians gained extra tools to hold government accountable. Voters can take matters into their own hands and act.
The most significant initiative in state history is the iconic Proposition 13, passed in 1978 when property tax bills were skyrocketing as real estate values soared with inflation. The State Legislature failed to address the growing problem of terrifying and unpredictable tax increases. Politicians were happy to spend the money.
Howard Jarvis led the long fight to limit property taxes, and when Prop. 13 finally passed, it cut property tax rates, limited annual increases in assessments and ensured that Californians could continue to live in their homes without the fear that sudden and unaffordable tax hikes would force them to sell. Direct democracy succeeded where the politicians had failed.
Another tool of direct democracy, the referendum, is a vote of the people to approve or reject a law that the Legislature has passed and the governor has signed. If a proponent files a request for a referendum, circulates petitions and turns in the required number of valid signatures within a limited period of time, the referendum goes on the ballot. If the majority of voters say no to the law, then the law is repealed.
The third tool, the recall of elected officials, is becoming quite familiar to California voters. In 2003, Gov. Gray Davis was recalled, and as of this writing, Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing a credible threat of a recall himself. A recall election would have two separate questions on the ballot: The first question addresses whether the governor should be recalled; the second question is the choice of his potential replacement. The current governor may not be listed as a candidate on the second question.
In 2003, there were more than 130 candidates on the recall ballot. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected with a plurality of the vote. As a majority is not required, there is no run-off.
Although there have been occasional changes to initiative and recall procedures over the last century, these reforms remain what their 20th century framers intended them to be — powerful tools that enable California voters to make sure their concerns are heard and addressed.