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Voter stickers at a polling station inside San Francisco City Hall. Voters will soon decide the fate of a number of heavily debated state laws, including laws on gay marriage and the death penalty. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Power to the People

Ballot initiatives often put states ahead of the curve, politically. This year is no exception.

BY Theo Anderson

For both the Left and the Right, the tools of direct democracy can be hopeful as well as maddening elements of the American political system. Those tools—ballot initiatives, referendums and recall elections—were among the key reforms advocated by progressives a century ago. The idea was to put power directly in the hands of the people and offset the influence of corporate money in state legislatures. And direct democracy has indeed achieved progressive goals. In Oregon and Arizona, women gained the right to vote by way of ballot initiatives in 1912. More recent initiatives have been crucial in the push to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in several states.

But direct democracy is a double-edged sword. It has just as often served conservative ends as progressive causes. The peculiar character of the modern conservative movement, in fact, had its origins in California's Proposition 13, which voters approved in 1978. Prop 13 capped property-tax rates in the state at one percent while requiring a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the California State Assembly to raise taxes, thereby making it effectively impossible.

Given the opportunity, Californians had voted to dramatically lower their tax rates—while expecting government to continue providing first-rate services. The state has never really solved that dilemma. California’s perpetual budget chaos, and the sharp deterioration in the quality of its educational systems and public services, can be traced directly to Prop 13. As usual, California was a trendsetter. A direct line of influence runs from Proposition 13 to the fierce anti-tax dogma that defines the contemporary conservative movement and the GOP.  

This fall, important initiatives will once again appear on the ballot in several states. The energy behind some of them comes from conservatives. Voters in Missouri, for example, will have the chance to pass an initiative that prohibits the creation of state-level health care exchanges without the legislature’s approval. The measure is part of the GOP’s broad and aggressive state-level assault on “Obamacare.”

But voters will also decide the fate of several other measures that push in a progressive direction. Three of the most important are in California.

The first is Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempt to circumvent the California State Assembly by casting his tax-hike proposal in the form of an initiative. Brown’s proposed budget is about $16 billion out of balance. The State Assembly has already approved nearly $8 billion in spending cuts. If it passes, Brown’s initiative will cover the difference by raising the state income tax on people who earn more than $250,000 per year, and by increasing the state sales tax by .25 percent. These modest increases are critical to balancing the budget, but they’re about much more than just that. They’re also about the legacy of Proposition 13—and whether there are any circumstances under which California voters are willing to approve higher taxes.

An initiative to abolish the death penalty will also be on the ballot. Though California has by far the largest death-row population in the nation, its last execution was in 2006. A judge subsequently suspended the use of the death penalty after a condemned prisoner argued that it amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” given the inadequate training of the prison staff.

The fact that the initiative has a decent chance of passing has little to do with moral persuasion. Unfortunately. it’s being portrayed mainly as a way for California to save money, since executing convicts is much more expensive than sentencing them to life in prison. Still, repealing the death penalty in the nation’s most populous state would add momentum to a trend among the states. Five states, including Illinois and New York, have abolished it in the past five years. The most recent, Connecticut, did so just three months ago.

A third important initiative in California is the city of Richmond’s proposed soda tax. The penny-per-ounce tax would apply to all beverages with added sugar, but not to diet drinks or fruit juices.

Richmond is a Bay-Area suburb, and more than half of its children are overweight or obese. The soda-tax measure is crucial because, if successful, it’s likely to inspire more local- and state-level attempts to address America’s obesity problem. The initiative’s main proponent, City Councilman Jeff Ritterman, has been quoted as saying that “Big Soda is where Big Tobacco was decades ago,” and that “Richmond might knock over the first domino.”

In 2009, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article detailing the negative health effects of sugary drinks. It concluded by predicting that “taxes on beverages that help drive the obesity epidemic should and will become routine.” Despite that prediction, Ritterman faces a steep uphill battle against “Big Soda,” whose lobbying entity, the American Beverage Association, has deep pockets and years of experience at thwarting health-promotion measures. The soda companies and the ABA have recently begun an astroturf campaign to mobilize voters against Richmond’s initiative. The San Francisco Chronicle has also come out against it, arguing that the tax “is not likely to cause many residents to stop drinking sodas—it might cause them to buy in bulk in neighboring towns. It also will not deter anyone from gorging on other goodies that contribute to obesity.”

Here’s a highly selective rundown of other state-level measures whose fate will be decided by voters this fall.

Gay marriage

The governor of Washington signed a bill that legalized gay marriage in February, and Maryland’s governor did the same in March. Whether those laws will take effect is now up to voters. Referendums to repeal the legislation will be on the ballot in both states. In Maine, meanwhile, gay marriage will be on the ballot for the second time in three years. In 2009, Maine was in the same situation as Washington and Maryland now face. The legislature had passed a law that legalized gay marriage, and the governor had signed it. But voters approved a referendum that overturned the law. That vote was relatively close, 53 to 47 percent, and supporters of the new initiative are confident that they now have the votes to make gay marriage legal in Maine. Recent polling suggests that they’re right.

Labor rights

Michigan’s unions joined together to put an initiative on the ballot that would amend the state’s constitution to ensure collective bargaining rights for public and private employees. It’s called the Protect Our Jobs amendment, and it’s a direct response to the loss of collective bargaining rights by public-sector employees in neighboring Wisconsin, and to the “right-to-work” legislation that has passed in several other states. It’s also a preemptive response to the Republican-controlled legislature, which has passed laws that curb union strength in minor ways, but hasn’t yet attempted a Wisconsin-style full-frontal assault. It’s possible that a vote on the proposed amendment will be derailed or delayed if business interests, which are mobilizing against it, file a lawsuit to prevent it from appearing on the ballot.

Marijuana

As it did with women’s suffrage a century ago, the West is leading the way on the issue of pot legalization. Colorado, Oregon and Washington have already legalized medical marijuana. This year, initiatives for outright legalization have been cleared to appear on the ballot in Colorado and Washington. Recent polling shows that a majority of voters in both states favor legalization. Oregon is likely to vote on legalization as well. Supporters of the initiative are confident that they’ve collected enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot, but the state is still counting them. Attempts to put pot legalization initiatives on the ballot fell short in several more states this year, including California.  

The initiatives in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, if they pass, will become milestones in the national push to scale back the “war on drugs.” They’ll also intensify the tensions between state and federal law regarding drug policy, since pot will continue to be classified as a controlled substance at the federal level. How that conflict will play out promises to be one of the more interesting political stories of the next several years.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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