SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Ahead of Election Day, airwaves and mailboxes across California overflow with expensive campaign advertisements. On top of choosing elected officials, California voters – not lawmakers – will once again decide things like constitutional amendments, $50 billion tax hikes and obscure labor union disputes.
Golden State voters receive a double dose of campaign propaganda during every major election thanks to its century-old system of direct democracy. Through a “political artifact” of the Progressive Era, like-minded voters can still propose, pass or repeal both laws and elected officials.
The powerful tool has allowed voters over the last 116 years to bypass the Legislature and cement far-reaching tax reforms, approve women’s suffrage, change the way state budgets are approved, set term limits for lawmakers and most recently legalize recreational marijuana use.
Intended as a way to circumvent inefficient lawmakers and ward off corruption, California’s direct democracy has been distorted from the version implemented by reformers in the early 20th century. Qualifying and passing a measure is no longer a romantic grassroots undertaking, but largely a pay-to-play process dominated by special interests and savvy politicians.
“In some form or other nearly every governmental problem that involves the health, the happiness, or the prosperity of the state has arisen, because some private interest has intervened or has sought for its own gain to exploit either the resources or the politics of the state,” California Gov. Hiram Johnson said in his 1911 inaugural address. “I take it, therefore, that the first duty that is mine to perform is to eliminate every private interest from the government, and to make the public service of the state responsive solely to the people.”
After several years of leading public corruption cases in San Francisco, Johnson and a flood of progressives gained control of the Legislature on a promise to crush the railroad industry’s sway over the Capitol.
Coined the “Octopus,” the railroad industry for decades bribed politicians in return for tax breaks and subsidies, gaining an impenetrable grip on the Legislature in Sacramento. As the only option in most towns, the railroad used its transportation monopoly to strong-arm municipalities and merchants trying to reach markets outside California.
Under Gov. Johnson, who later was Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate in the 1912 presidential election, the Legislature quickly passed railroad regulations and followed the lead of eight other western states by giving voters the power to propose their own laws and recall politicians. Prominent Los Angeles doctor John Randolph Haynes helped bankroll the statewide adoption of direct democracy and would go on to play a major role in California politics until he died in 1937.
Glen Gendzel, history professor at California State University, San Jose, calls 1911 California’s “single most important legislative session.”
“This power of direct democracy, and its frequent exercise, would become the most distinctive feature of California politics – for better or for worse,” Gendzel wrote in a 2013 social science journal review.
Gendzel and other experts have documented how the progressives’ ploy to check the power of the wealthy has evolved into a weapon for California’s biggest corporations. It now costs backers millions just to collect enough signatures to qualify a statewide measure and millions more to spread their message across California’s 58 counties.