Review Essay: Assessing California's Hybrid Democracy
15 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2009 Last revised: 25 Jul 2013
Date Written: February 23, 2009
In the early part of this decade it appeared that California voters stood to use the devices of direct democracy - the initiative, referendum, and the recall - to take a more major role in crafting the state's public policy. After all, in 2003 California for the first time recalled a sitting governor, Gray Davis, and replaced him with actor-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. By the end of the decade, however, despite the promise of "hybrid democracy," it appears that voters remain the junior partners in governance in the Golden State. Schwarzenegger's boldest attempt to bypass the legislature and go directly to voters came in a special election he called in 2005. Though Schwarzenegger raised and spent $56 million supporting his package of measures (out of a total of an astounding $300 million spent on ballot measure activity in that election, all of the measures that Schwarzenegger backed went down to defeat, some by large margins.
The 2005 experience was not isolated. One lesson of this decade is that the devices of direct democracy remain too blunt and expensive as tools for anything but interstitial governance. From 2002 through 2008 voters were asked to approve 63 ballot measures - 43 voter initiatives and 20 ballot measures proposed by the legislature. California voters approved 18 of the 20 legislative ballot measures (the large majority of them bond measures), a 90% approval rate. But they approved only 14 of 43 initiatives, a rate of 32.5%, lower than the rate in past decades. Proponents and opponents spent over $1.3 billion on ballot measure-related activity in California in the 2000-2006 period. Despite this flurry of activity, California's governance appeared in shambles for much of the decade, with the biggest problem being the inability of the California legislature to approve a state budget under the state constitution's tough rule requiring two-thirds approval of budgets, leading the state in 2008 to the verge of financial collapse. Moreover, the initiative process proved especially divisive in 2008 when California voters narrowly approved Proposition 8, a measure amending the California Constitution to bar gay marriage.
This review essay considers the state of hybrid democracy in California through an examination of three worthy books: Daniel Weintraub, Party of One: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of the Independent Voter; Center for Governmental Studies, Democracy by Initiative: Shaping California's Fourth Branch of Government (Second Edition), and Mark Baldassare and Cheryl Katz, The Coming of Age of Direct Democracy: California's Recall and Beyond. The essay concludes that despite the hoopla about Governor Schwarzenegger as a "party of one" and a new age of "hybrid democracy" in California, the pattern in the 2000s appears mostly the same as that of past decades: California voters have occasionally passed important measures through the initiative process, but for the most part public policy in the state continues to be crafted by the state legislature and the governor. The best hope for increased "people power" through the initiative process is for initiative proponents to focus on good government measures that assure a better legislative process, such as open primaries, redistricting reform, and budget reform.
Keywords: legislation, initiatives, direct democracy, recall, hybrid democracy
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