Saturday, June 21, 2008

Two Can Plea At This (CA) Game

Fill it up...another court please.

Out there on the left coast, wingers seem to love ballot initiatives and lefties play by the legal rules. A bunch of equality-minded folk are asking the California Supreme Court to stop the November initiative that would outlaw same-sex marriage there. The arguments are:
  1. The signature petitions and docs filed read that there'd be no change to state law. Following the decision to mandate SSM, that's not true. This would require a do over for signatures with clarity.
  2. The initiative seems to revise rather than amend the state constitution. Moreover, it would revise it to legalize something the high court there has found unconstitutional.
It is somewhat amusing that the other side on this issue and on equality and rights in general is normally the one making precise legal arguments instead of broad ones. While this suit can appear picayune at first look, it is really only asking that the anti forces play by the well-defined rules.

I have long had my own issues with California's overly easy initiative system (or the flamethrower of populism in my terms). There is terrific latitude in getting any harebrained scheme on the ballot for a simple majority vote. Given that, you'd think even the anti-gay forces would obey the few requirements.

As part of the let-'em-vote mentality, the secretary of state, Debra Bowen, doesn't have much control. She has to certify on the basis of number of valid signatures. She'd can't stifle an initiative that is patently unconstitutional without a court order. That's what this suit tries to do, put the brakes on a scam before it rushes into the constitution with the force of law.

For its own bluster, the anti folks' spokes-lawyer, Alliance Defense Fund's Glen Lavy said,"This is just another attempt to force a radical political agenda upon the people of California. The opponents of marriage are willing to use any means necessary to impose their will."

Yup, it must be them homosexuals with a political agenda using any means to impose their will on the people. Winning multiple times in the legislature and then in the highest court sure is sneaky.

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Evan Ravitz said...

Your "flamethrower" article contains a big mistake: you say that the purpose of ballot initiatives is "to overturn incompetent and destructive laws." That's what the REFERENDUM is for. Initiatives are so people can pass laws the govt. won't. Ballot initiatives are the origin of most reforms, such as women's suffrage (passed in 13 states before Congress went along), direct election of Senators (4 states), publicly financed elections (by initiative in 6 of 7 states with them), medical marijuana (8 of 13 states) and increasing minimum wages (in all 6 states that tried in 2006). See for more examples.The media have seized on the problem initiatives. They generally kiss up to politicians and downgrade citizens.

You say the process is too easy: for the rich, yes. For everyone else, extremely difficult.

You also hope that the legislatures will "fine tune" the ballot initiative process. Don't hold your breath. Although great proposals to fix the problems have been around for decades, legislatures have ONLY tried to make the process more difficult.

Voters on initiatives need what legislators get: public hearings, expert testimony, amendments, reports, etc. The best project for such deliberative process is the National Initiative for Democracy, led by former Sen. Mike Gravel: Also and

massmarrier said...

That's an amusing way to thinly slice that. That is also a purpose of ballot initiatives and should be a clear distinction. However, notice that the suit against this one puts the lie to that here. The aim is to overturn the court decision in this case, as the anti-SSM ballot initiative was in Massachusetts.

The intend of the efforts varies. Moreover, California's system is vastly easier than anywhere in the half of states that permit such plebiscites. They have passed a lot more of them and had even more up that failed. The interpretation that it's too easy is quite supportable. This is compounded with the simple, binary "check" of enough sigs? Yes. Go.

Finally, the fact that such votes can put unfunded mandates into law has been very destructive for California.

Evan Ravitz said...

It's actually hardest to get on the CA ballot, simply because it's the most populated state, and the signatures required are based on a percentage of population (usually 5-10% of those voting for governor. That means $ has more power over the initiative process in CA.

I'm sorry that gays have been targeted by intolerant abusers of the initiative process. But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater!

Here in Colorado, my gay friend Jared Polis is running for Congress (, and he's the single greatest force in turning Colorado from "red" to "blue" since 2000. He's used his wealth to fund Dem campaigns, but also to sponsor 2 very successful ballot initiatives, Colorado Amendments 23 (raising school funding) and 41 (preventing lobbyists from giving anything to legislators). He joined in sponsoring 37, which mandates renewables for electric companies.

(Jared's mom is the producer/director of Anyone and Everyone, about parents learning of their kids sexual orientation:

Jared also supports NATIONAL ballot initiatives, with which we could stop the Feds from abridging medical marijuana rights, stop illegal wars, torture, etc., and get national health care, which Congress has dithered over since the '40s, while all other 1st world countries got it.

You have to be fair: legislators, especially Congress, have done FAR more to abridge civil rights than any ballot initiative: the McCarthy hearings destroyed the careers of many socialists, the Drug War has incarcerated millions, and now they're spying on us and torturing innocents picked up in illegal wars.

Ballot Initiatives mean that the legislatures don't have absolute power any more. Only Congress has a monopoly -and look what happens. Take a look at for how to improve initiatives, and make them national.

It's not a panacea, obviously, but it is "government BY the people."

massmarrier said...

Indeed it is a form of popular government. At the extreme of that end, you can snidely say that mob rule is also.

I object when the aim is to bypass representative government, as in the legislature, or to overturn a court decision. In our experience in Massachusetts and also in California, those have been too common, even though many do eventually fail. In the books and articles criticizing California's system, a common and well supported point is that the initiative and referendum process lends itself to calls to emotion and ill-explained ballot questions.

Some are framed by corporations and other by narrow interest groups. These have too often been in effect tricks. In such cases, the onus falls to opposing groups to try and convince the would-be petition signers or voters that they are being manipulated.

To your point, that can work. I see in 91-year initiative history from the secretary of state's office that there were 1,187 circulated, of which 290 got enough sigs for the ballot. So that part is not a sure thing.

Yet, 99 were approved (32 amendments, 57 laws, 6 combo). Whether it is population or fanaticism or both, California continues to lead the nation in annual I&R tries.

Looking at the 36 for 2006, quite a few are very complex and would have benefited from representative democracy instead of in effect a statewide town meeting.

I certainly understand the appeal of voting on important topics. I hope you also understand the perils.

The 26 states that don't have the ballot options don't seem to suffer. By itself that is not a reason to denigrate them. However, the faddish and emotional aspect of them is still dangerous and prone to error. Then correcting a new or revised law or even worse an amendment is a big task.