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Direct democracy, gulp, at work

WHEN Californians go to the polls tomorrow they'll have to decide on 29 statewide ballot questions - initiatives, referendums, bond issues - covering a bewildering range of subjects. One voter in the Bay Area counted up each decision, from presidential race to local school bonds, on his sample ballot. The total: 61. California, though it's way out ahead on this as so many things, is not alone in its inclination to give ``voter lawmakers'' their say. Nationwide, Americans in 41 states will be making choices on 230 ballot questions - quite a pile, but not out of line with the volume in recent years.

Clearly, the initiative and referendum process, started as a guard against corrupt turn-of-the-century legislators, has a secure place in the American political system. But its critics are many. They point to poorly written initiatives that later have to be sorted out by lawyers and the courts. They point to voter confusion and cynicism - a lot of people vote no on everything, or just skip that daunting part of the ballot altogether.

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Perhaps most disturbing, critics argue that the process has ceased being the tool of aroused citizens. Large, monied interests have seized the initiative and turned it to their own ends. This is certainly a factor this year in California's insurance wars, being fought squarely on tomorrow's ballot after inconclusive skirmishes in the Legislature.

Everyone knew the state's auto insurance system had to be revamped. People were being slapped with outrageous rates. But the lawmakers in Sacramento, vigorously lobbied by the state's lawyers and insurance companies, deadlocked. So citizens' insurance-reform groups first cracked the dam with initiatives to cut rates across the board. The insurance firms soon jumped in with ballot questions of their own. Californians now have five insurance-related propositions to choose from, rife with contradictory provisions. Some $60 million has been pumped into the campaign - about equal to the cost of a presidential campaign and more than the total spent nationwide on ballot issues in 1984.

Still, even in this extraordinary case a seething citizens' complaint is getting a needed airing. The message to legislators is clear: If you can't or won't act, we will. Remember the taxpayers' rebellion of the late '70s? Proposition 13 changed the political face of America, and taxation remains a major target of initiative and referendums.

The targets, in fact, are bountiful: closing nuclear power plants in Massachusetts, legalizing gambling in Minnesota, eliminating parole for hard-core criminals in Oregon, reclaiming open-pit mines in South Dakota, tracing the AIDS virus in California, making English the official language in Colorado, and banning handgun sales in Maryland. Powerful corporate interest play a big role in many of these contests, but so do aroused individuals.

Reforms of the ballot issue process are probably in order - such as a clearer listing of the sponsors of propositions, limits on contributions to campaigns for their passage, and review of their wording by state officials. But there can be little doubt that the process continues to serve its fundamental purpose, giving the people a louder voice in government.

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