These Ballot Measures Backfired on Voters and Made Things Worse

November 1st 2016

Mike Rothschild

Direct democracy allows citizens to bypass the gridlock and corruption of government and vote directly on issues that affect them, while gathering signatures to put their own laws on the ballot. In that sense, it's truly government by the people.

But in a less idealistic and more pragmatic sense, direct democracy is often untenable, rife with abuse, and awash with unintended consequences.

Nowhere is this more outwardly visible than in California, where every two years voters are asked to make decisions on a slew of ballot initiatives for everything from construction bonds to prescription drug prices to conditions for farm animals.

The constant flow of amendments has produced a state government laden by what the Los Angeles Times calls "endless gimmicks that diffuse accountability, confuse the public and produce thoroughly dysfunctional governance."

These measures have backfired in ways that were both spectacular and, in hindsight, totally obvious.

Here's a rundown of the most egregious examples of direct democracy in California.

Proposition 8

The most infamous was California's Proposition 8 in 2008, which codified that marriage was between one man and one woman.

It resulted in a slew of lawsuits and confusion regarding marriages already performed. Prop 8 also made the issue more visible to voters, as Gallup showed a 13 point polling spike in approval for same-sex marriage from 2009 to 2013.

It was overturned in 2013 by the state Supreme Court — an action that legal scholars fear might weaken the entire ballot initiative process.

Proposition 187

California voters passed Prop 187 In 1994 in response to a state budget crisis.

It placed restrictions on undocumented immigrants' ability to access public education and health benefits.

The measure was never enforced, and it hastened the transformation of California from reliably Republican to Democratic.

Proposition 13

The infamous 1987 ballot measure capped and slashed property taxes and required a two-thirds majority vote of the legislature to pass a budget or raise taxes.

The measure was sold as a way to keep the elderly from losing their homes and to curtail onerously high tax rates.

Instead, it disincentivized home sales, created loopholes for corporations, forced massive increases in other fees, and hampered state services.

It also turned the ballot into an arms race, as the money spent on signature gathering and advertising exploded.

Proposition 215

Prop 215 in 1996 legalized medical marijuana. But it brought a host of problems, creating a massive web of legal gray areas, unregulated growth, and untaxed income.

It also pit the state against the federal government, which still bans marijuana use for any reason.

California has the most infamous problems with direct democracy, but other states have proposed or passed laws that serve no purpose, actively discriminate, or are totally unenforceable.

The worst examples of direct democracy outside California.

  • A slew of voter ID laws, with measures put to voters in Missouri in 2016, Mississippi in 2011, Minnesota in 2012.
  • Four different attempts to put fetal personhood amendments on the ballot in Colorado, three of which were defeated by voters, and another that never had enough signatures to be accepted.
  • Laws in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma attempting to circumvent the Affordable Care Act.
  • A 2010 law in Oklahoma that would have banned the enforcement of Sharia law (this passed, but was struck down by an appeals court).
  • South Dakota is holding a referendum in 2016 to lower the state's minimum wage for minors.
  • A 2014 measure in Arizona that would allow the state to assert "sovereign authority" and reject federal laws it deemed unconstitutional.

Beyond this, the process is rife with abuse, including frivolous measures.

One 2016 California bill, a "Sodomite suppression act," would have put to voters whether gay people should be shot. It was only stopped from going out for signatures when a judge struck it down.

That bill inspired other joke filings, including the "Intolerant Jackass Suppression" bill and the "Shellfish Suppression" Act.

California in particular has also been plagued by paired propositions, where two initiatives will be in conflict with each other, with the second usually put on the ballot by a special interest group seeking to confuse voters into shooting down both.

Despite this tangle of problems, the system does sometimes work.

  • California passed Prop 4 in 1911 to give women the right to vote.
  • Prop 110 in 1990 allowed special property tax provisions for the severely disabled.
  • Prop 25 in 2010 undid many of the most odious restrictions on the California legislature, letting lawmakers pass a budget with a simple rather than two-thirds majority.

Voters also often defeat propositions that would take away rights or impose an undue burden on a certain population.

Some include defeating the anti-collective bargaining Prop 18 in 1958; Prop 6 in 1978, which would have barred gays and lesbians from working in public schools; and Prop 64 in 1986, which would have mandated reporting of AIDS cases.

Even with these steps forward, it's clear that the direct democracy process around the country — and in California in particular — is fraught with problems and often does more harm to the voters than good.