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Direct Democracy, for Billionaires

David Callahan

Over a century ago, progressive reformers were deeply worried about how wealthy interests had hijacked American politics, populating state legislatures with cronies who did as they were told and otherwise steamrolled the will of the people.

To level the playing field, reformers worked to create mechanisms for direct democracy through state referendum and ballot initiatives, allowing voters to bypass corrupted political systems.

Now, in a classic case of unintended consequences, these mechanisms for popular power are routinely used by the rich to change state laws -- or try to, anyway. Again and again in recent years, wealthy individuals or interest groups have poured fortunes into ballot initiative campaigns. As the Progressive States Network has shown, the deep-pocketed right has been especially effective in using ballot initiatives to cut taxes, limit government, restrict affirmative action, and ban gay marriage.

Regardless of what the rich want, the ability of a single wealthy person to wield so much influence over a state's political agenda is profoundly disturbing. And this year it is worse than ever, with more than a 170 ballot initiatives before voters in November. The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center estimates that over $400 million will go into campaigns for and against these initiatives -- what BISC calls the "other election." Much of this money will come from wealthy individuals or special interests.

As usual, things are especially bad in California. According to a report today in the New York Times:

Next month, California voters will be asked to consider 11 ballot propositions. . . . This time around, though, four of them are initiatives of single rich individuals, while others are being challenged by equally wealthy critics pouring in millions of dollars to defeat them — a sign, in this era of “super PACs” and Citizens United, of the increasingly sophisticated use of the populist tool by the wealthy to influence politics in the nation’s most populous state. . . .

To be sure, rich individuals have sponsored ballot initiatives to advance pet projects in the past. But now they are doing so in greater numbers and using their resources to build coalitions with like-minded groups to increase the success rate of their initiatives and actually help set government policy, experts said.

“Their level of giving is something we haven’t seen before,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a private organization that has long tracked the money behind ballot initiatives. “We’ve seen companies giving that much, and unions and PACs that have a lot at stake giving $10, $20 million in an election, but you didn’t see that so much for individual donors. So that’s something that is bringing us to a new level this cycle.”

California isn't the only state where the wealthy use direct democracy to get their way. Washington and Oregon have seen a similar pervsion of the ballot initiative process in recent years.

Stronger campaign finance laws are needed to reduce the role of money in state ballot fights. More importantly, though, states need to scrap these mechanisms altogether -- which have many other problems beyond how they empower the super wealthy. California has become virtually ungovernable thanks to contradictory or poorly designed state laws enacted by popular vote.

Many progressives embrace the ballot initiative system to try to make positive change, and you can see that this year with initiatives pending that would legalize same-sex marriage and protect worker rights. But ultimately the ballot game is a losing proposition for the left, which doesn't have the financial resources of the right.

This nation's Founders had good reasons for creating a republic, not a direct democracy. State referendum laws need to go, because they run against the logic upon which our democracy is based.