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Ballots Boom, but Is It Good Government?

California launched a democratic movement that now flourishes in 24 states.

When California voters passed a ballot initiative in 1978 that shredded the state's property tax structure, it was a move born of voter frustration with politics as usual.

And Proposition 13 echoed well beyond the state's borders, not only giving rise to a nationwide tax revolt, but also revealing a new populist fervor for the process itself: bypassing elective bodies with ballot initiatives, one of the rawest forms of citizen democracy.

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Two decades later, however, the political climate has changed. Voter satisfaction with elected legislatures is on the rise, in some cases dramatically. Yet this year, California may well match this decade's record of 18 ballot initiatives, and other states could turn to them to solve thorny issues such as adoption, affirmative action, and urban growth. Indeed, ballot initiatives appear firmly embedded as a common means of governance despite growing criticism from analysts who say they see worrisome flaws in a process increasingly being used in ways not originally intended.

The ballot initiative "has become a fourth branch of government in many cases and I'm not sure that's a good thing," says Floyd Feeney, a University of California-Davis law professor and author of the forthcoming book "Lawmaking by Initiative." Originally designed as a way to bypass a stalled legislature, going directly to the ballot is now one of the options considered from the get go, he says.

The deadlines for qualifying initiatives in most of the 24 states that allow voters to enact laws or amend their state constitution directly are in July and August. Still, initiatives are off to a fast start. California, one of the few states to allow initiatives on the primary ballot, has five this June, another seven submitted for November, and 32 still seeking enough signatures for the fall ballot. Meanwhile, Alaska has set a new high-water mark with five ballot measures.

The range of issues in play this year is considerable. In Alaska, voters will be asked to prohibit billboards and wolf snares. Washington residents will vote on ending state-sponsored affirmative-action programs. In Oregon, ballots may include new guidelines for adoption, while in Arizona, new requirements for urban-growth planning could be enacted.

Peter Schrag, author of "Paradise Lost, California's Experience, America's Future," says that while ballot initiatives are often valid vehicles for confronting problems that the political establishment is unwilling or unable to address, they too often prescribe "overkill solutions." He says a measure to end bilingual education on the June California ballot is a classic example of an "all-purpose, sledgehammer solution" that will only create new problems.

Just look at the tortured history that followed Prop. 13, says Mr. Schrag. Emboldened by that measure, another initiative was passed that prohibited state spending from rising faster than the rate of population growth or income. That led in 1987 to a massive state refund to taxpayers, even as the public schools were deteriorating and in desperate need of new state funding as a result of Prop. 13. Recognizing the schools' plight, another initiative was passed, requiring the state to spend a fixed amount on schools, a straightjacket solution to a problem created by previous simplistic solutions, says Schrag.

While most in California strongly favor keeping the initiative process, there is also support for reforms, according to a Field poll taken last fall. Most favor increasing to two-thirds from the current simple majority the tally needed for passage. Most also want to create a procedure for vetting initiatives for clarity of language and potential conflict with other laws.

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The trouble is, efforts to reform the initiative process are poison to most elected officials, who fear tampering with something already born of voter frustration with politicians.

It's also not clear what impact initiatives have on voter turnout. Clearly, hot-button issues draw attention and voters. In 1978, for instance, more people voted for Prop. 13 than for governor.

Yet in many routine years, the number of ballot initiatives and their complexity can be a decided voter turnoff. "In 1990, I had 100 decisions to make on my ballot," says Robert Stern of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "That definitely has something to do with the drop in voter turnout."

Forged as a tool for combating the power of the railroads, it has been used over the years for everything from adopting daylight saving time in California to the "right to die" in Oregon. Populist traditions and weaker political parties in the West are two explanations why it is strongest here, though its use didn't really take off until the 1970s.

While initiatives had a grounding philosophy of being more grass roots, Feeney says the activists behind them now are "mostly been the same players that play in the legislative arena."

The initiative process is now an industry in its own right. California's five June initiatives have already generated over $17 million in campaign spending.

Stern says the initiative is being over-used, and increasingly as a tool for wedge issues, like California's ban on certain social services for illegal immigrants in 1994. But he insists, "For some issues, it's the only way you'll ever get results. Like on term limits and campaign-finance reform."

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