With the California Recall on everyone’s mind, I was wondering about the history of California’s experiment in direct democracy.” The key issue is the budget, which interestingly has been largely taken out of the hands of the governor’s office by previous referendum. The author of The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria, has this to say:

California, in 30 years, has gone from being one the best-run states in the world to a complete basket case,” he said. Why? Part of the reason is that they have referendums and initiatives on everything. Ten percent of the California budget is actually under the control of the legislature, the rest of it is all mandated by referendums and initiatives. So, what is their solution? A referendum or initiative to recall the governor. It is essentially incompatible with representative democracy.”

It seems that the whole thing was started by the Progressive Party back in 1911:

The Progressive Party fastened the initiative and referendum on California in 1911. Hiram Johnson, its successful candidate for governor in 1910, had campaigned for the measures in order to restore absolute sovereignty to the people” in the hope, as he put it quaintly, that we may yet live in a free republic.”

As the Progressives saw it, the problem with representative government in California was that the people were not being represented in the legislature, which was dominated by big corporate interests and the political machines that served them. Besides, California voters were more intelligent and public-spirited than ever before, the Progressives claimed, and it was only natural to give them a greater voice (and their representatives a lesser one) in making and unmaking laws. Direct democracy would be a way of transferring the people’s attention from men to measures, and doubtless would have an uplifting, educative effect on the tone of California’s political life.

Since then, the number of voter initiatives has been steadily increasing:

…in the 1970s less than 15 initiatives (on average) were filed each year; in the 1980s the filings shot up to almost 30 per year; in this decade almost 80 a year. The number of initiatives qualifying for the ballot was lower, of course, and the number approved lower still, but the increases in these categories were still almost sixfold.

Even this year’s recall vote will have several other initiatives attached to it. Among them is a very scary one to stop state and local agencies from collecting racial statistics, except for medical research”!

Recalls and referendum are not unique to California:

The recall is a venerable part of the political tradition in 34 states, 17 of whom allow recall of statewide elected officials.

But it is much easier to get a recall to vote in California:

It requires the signatures of only 12 percent of the voters in the prior election to put a recall on the ballot, compared to 25 percent in most states.

Moreover, only once in US history has the recall successfully removed a governor from office:

… back in 1921 in North Dakota.

It is also clear that special interests, rather than some fictional public, have been behind many of California’s referendum. For instance:

Republican Rep. Darrell Issa has spent $1.71 million of his car alarm fortune to bankroll the campaign.

But does this mean that referendum are necessarily a bad idea? This group wants to bring direct democracy” through referendum to Canada, and they argue that it isn’t clearly any worse than the current system, and allows the public to overrule politicians. While they also like alternative forms of representative democracy, such as proportional representation, they worry that these still leave a professional class of politicians in charge.

Moreover, in Taiwan the issue of direct democracy takes on a whole different meaning, since the main reason that the President is pushing for a national referendum on issues like the GE nuclear power plant is really just to set a legal precedent for a referendum on Taiwanese sovereignty, an issue that is sure to displease Beijing.

A recent New York Times article recent cited work done by Kenneth Arrow in the 40s and 50s which showed that:

It provided proof that there is no way to arrange an electoral system to perfectly reflect the will of the people when it comes to choosing a winner from more than two candidates.

I don’t know if his arguments have still stood up to the test of time, but it does seem to me that with all the advancements in human technical knowledge we should be able to come up with a better system than what we have. In California’s case, raising the percentage of voters necessary for a recall, together with spending limits, might help to improve things a little bit.


Here is a link to a site which lists how much is being spent by both sides in the recall vote.

Here is a good overview of the topic with links, references, etc.

And here is another one.

Here is a new blog started to cover (and stop) the recall.

Here is a FAQ about recalls from the California Secretary of State.