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California

The initiative and referendum are available at the state level and in every city. The state-level initiative and referendum were adopted in 1911. San Francisco and Vallejo were the first cities to adopt the initiative in 1898, and California counties were given initiative rights in 1893.

 Progressive-era Governor Hiram Johnson is well known for leading the successful fight for direct democracy in the Golden State, the critical groundwork laid by Dr. John Randolph Haynes may have been as important. A Philadelphian who held doctorates in both medicine and philosophy, Haynes moved west to Los Angeles in 1887, at the age of 34. He established a successful medical practice, counting many prominent Southern Californians among his patients, invested his profits skillfully in real estate, and eventually became a millionaire.

In 1895 Haynes helped found the California Direct Legislation League, dedicated to winning the rights of initiative, referendum, and recall statewide and in every local jurisdiction. He won election in 1900 to a Los Angeles "board of freeholders" responsible for drafting a new charter for the city. Haynes used this strategic position to ensure that the board included I&R in the new charter, only to see the entire charter thrown out by the courts on a technicality. A new board, without Haynes, was elected in 1902, but he continued to advocate I&R and brought Eltweed Pomeroy of New Jersey, president of the National Direct Legislation League, from the East Coast specifically to address the board. After Pomeroy's speech, the board voted to include initiative, referendum, and recall in the new charter. Voters ratified the charter in 1903.

Haynes then concentrated his efforts on winning statewide I&R. The odds against him were daunting. The entire state government had for decades been under the control of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Bribery was the accepted method of doing business in the state capitol. Realizing the hopelessness of dealing with the current officeholders, Haynes and other reformers began a campaign to get rid of them and remake state government from top to bottom. In May 1907 they founded the Lincoln-Roosevelt League of Republican Clubs, and elected several of their candidates to the legislature. These legislators worked for a bill to require the nomination of party candidates through primary election rather than state party conventions. The bill passed, and the League's 1910 gubernatorial candidate, Hiram Johnson, ran in the state's first primary election. Johnson won the primary and the general election and swept dozens of other reformers into the legislature on his political coattails.

Johnson and the new Progressive majority in the legislature sweeping changes in the state's government. Among these were adoption of the initiative, referendum, and recall at both the state and local levels. Voters ratified these amendments in a special election on October 10, 1911.

Reformers in Los Angeles won voter approval, in December 1911, of a unique local initiative to create a municipally owned, yet editorially independent, newspaper to compete with the anti-labor, anti-reform Los Angeles Times and provide unbiased news and an equal forum for all political views. Each political party was given a column in every weekly edition. This bold experiment in free speech attracted the state's top newspaper talent and got off to a highly successful start. After less than a year, however, it failed because of the harassment of vendors and an advertiser boycott organized by the Los Angeles reformers' arch-enemy, Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Times.

The first significant statewide initiative in California abolished the poll tax in 1914, and a construction bond initiative for the University of California also won voter approval that year. Immediately thereafter, anti-initiative forces launched their first counterattack, in the form of a constitutional amendment passed by the legislature to make it more difficult to pass initiative bond proposals. Haynes mobilized his pro-initiative forces and defeated the amendment at the polls in 1915.

Anti-initiative forces tried again in 1920, this time using the initiative process themselves to propose a measure that would have made it virtually impossible to put any tax-related initiatives on future ballots. Haynes mobilized his forces again and defeated the measure at the polls; and he won a third, similar contest in 1922. After this he changed the name of his California Direct Legislation League to "The League to Protect the Initiative," and for the rest of his life kept close watch over the legislature to make sure that it enacted no laws to restrict I&R procedures. Haynes died on October 30, 1937, at the age of 84.

On the ballot in 1934 were four successful constitutional initiatives to revamp the state's law enforcement and criminal justice systems. All four were sponsored by Alameda County District Attorney Earl Warren, who went on to become the state's attorney general in 1938, its governor in 1942, and the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953. The principal changes involved procedures for judicial selection and retention, and increasing the woefully inadequate powers and jurisdiction of the office of attorney general. Warren's foresight in revamping the justice system before running for attorney general accounted in no small measure for his effectiveness once elected, which in turn made possible his rise to higher office.

One of the highest stakes initiative campaigns, in terms of campaign spending was the 1956 struggle over changes in the state regulation and taxation of oil and gas production. The initiative was sponsored by one group of oil companies that sought to make their business more profitable, and opposed by another group of oil firms that preferred the existing system. Campaign funds spent by both sides totaled over $5 million. The 1956 initiative lost: California voters, inundated with conflicting claims about a complex measure, took the cautious route and voted "no."

Almost as expensive was the gargantuan 1958 labor-capital conflict over a "Right to Work" (open shop) initiative sponsored by employers. This battle ended in a double defeat for employers: not only did voters decisively reject the initiative, but the opposition campaign mobilized Democrats and union members to vote in droves, resulting in the election of Governor Edmund G. Brown, Sr., the first Democrat to occupy that office in 16 years.

In the 1960s, California liberals soured on the initiative process as a result of two measures passed by voters in 1964. The first repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which the legislature had passed, and Governor Brown had signed, in 1963. The second banned cable television. That measure was sponsored by theater owners who, fearing competition, advertised the initiative as guaranteeing "free television" and eliminating the specter of "pay television." Both 1964 initiatives were later overturned by the courts as unconstitutional.

The California initiative process gave rise to a new breed of campaign professional: the paid petition circulator. With signature requirements doubling nearly every decade, citizen groups were unable to rely solely on volunteer effort. As early as World War I, Joseph Robinson was offering his organizing services to initiative proponents. His firm, which paid its employees a fee for each signature brought in, had a virtual monopoly on the petition business from 1920 to 1948 - a period during which, Robinson estimated, his firm was involved in 98 percent of the successful statewide initiative petition drives. Robinson stayed in business into the late 1960s, when he offered his services to Ed and Joyce Koupal, but by then he had competitors.

California's most famous initiative was Proposition 13, approved by voter in 1978. Proposition 13 capped property taxes at 1 percent of value and limited assessment increases. It sparked a so-called tax-revolt across the country that ran for almost a decade, and also led to a revival in initiative use across the country as citizens increasingly turned to the initiative process to gain a greater control over their lives.

In recent decades, Californian has led the nation in high profile initiatives. California initiatives have allowed voters to express their views on wide variety of important social, economic, and governmental issues including term limits, bilingual education, racial preferences/affirmative action, medical marijuana, punishment for crimes, taxes, government debt, and same-sex marriage. Elected officials in other parts of the country sometimes vilify the initiative process by saying, “we don’t want to be like California.” Despite the view from outside (and in some cases inside) the state that the initiative process has been a problem for state government, the process remains overwhelmingly popular among the electorate. Defenders note as well that California is not the only state to face economic and fiscal problems, and that many of the problematic policies were passed by the legislature not by initiatives.

 

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USC School of Law

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