Ballot Initiatives

California is very fond of the ballot initiative. Coming from a different state with a different political culture, this baffles me.

This biggest, most obvious problem with democracy is that the majority will vote themselves benefits at the expense of the minority. The authors of the U.S. constitution were aware of this, and they created elitist systems on top of direct democracy in an attempt to minimize the issues. Senators were elected by state legislators, not by the people, and the president was elected by the state electors, not by popular vote. Over time we’ve move toward more direct democracy, but we still remain a representative democracy: our laws are not made by the people, they are made by the representatives that we elect.

When it works, this is a good system. We are all busy people, and we can’t keep track of all the important issues. Neither can our representatives, but they can hire staff to help them, and they can focus full time on deciding these issues wisely. Obviously in practice there are many difficulties, mostly in the area of money, but it mostly works well enough.

Except in California, where many important issues are decided by a direct vote by the people. I think this merely encourages demagoguery, not on behalf of a person, but on behalf of a specific issue. I don’t want to have to research these issues and figure out where I stand. I want to elect a person who has the time to consider them in detail, and who is intelligent enough to make a good decision.

I wonder how feasible it would be to pass a ballot initiative which made it much harder to create new ballot initiatives.


  1. ppluzhnikov said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

    I was told that the reason Californians want ballot initiatives is that they don’t trust their politicians to make smart decisions.
    Researching initiatives is surprisingly difficult. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. I’ve been reading Steve Friedl’s analysis here: I don’t always agree with him, but I think he does present balanced and well-researched view.

  2. rpluim said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 6:47 am

    I’m saddened by statements like “I don’t want to have to research these issues and figure out where I stand”. Having suffered the vagaries of various political systems and politicians over the past 20 years ignoring the extremely clear ‘will of the people’, I personally would welcome the chance to have a more direct influence on decisions that affect me, and I feel that anyone lucky enough to have the opportunity to exercise such influence should take the time to examine the issues.

  3. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

    ppluzhnikov: It’s true that I can just follow somebody else’s suggestion, but that seems to lead me back to where I started from.

    rpluim: I don’t see how politicians could consistently ignore the will of the people. They have to get a plurality of the vote, and that is normally too much for them to simply buy. I often disagree with what U.S. politicians do, but I can’t honestly claim that they disregard what the people who voted for them want them to do. However, I don’t know which systems you are speaking of.

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