Thu. Apr 18th, 2024

By Jon Coupal – June 1, 2023

When will progressives stop attacking the direct democracy rights?

A couple of months ago, this column exposed the threat that Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 1 posed to the power of recall. Among the powers of direct democracy, initiative, referendum and recall, the power to recall a statewide or local elected official provides voters with the ability to remove a sitting elected official in the middle of a term. Recalls are frequently deployed when an elected official has engaged in gross dereliction of duties such as the recent successful recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

Currently, voters can recall a state officer by majority vote and, in the same election, elect a successor with a plurality of the vote. But SCA 1 would leave an office vacant in the event of a successful recall until a replacement is elected in a special election. This deprives voters of knowing who will replace the politician they are recalling and there would be no one to perform the duties of that office. In addition, under SCA 1 the rules would be different for a gubernatorial recall. If a governor is removed from office in a recall election, the lieutenant governor becomes governor for the remainder of the unexpired term. In a one-party state, that deprives voters of a serious debate.

SCA 1 isn’t the only legislative attack on the right of direct democracy. Assembly Bill 421 would virtually destroy the right to referendum. Unlike the power of initiative, which is when citizens “initiate” the legislative process, the right to referendum is the power to subject a law enacted by the legislature to a “yea or nay” vote by voters. It is a power not used very often and normally deployed against laws that are extremely unpopular.

AB 421 would require that at least 5% of signature collection be done by volunteers which, for grassroots organizations like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, would not present an insurmountable burden, but it would restrict the rights of other interests targeted by punitive legislation.

AB 421 also resurrects a horrible idea of changing the nature of a vote on a referendum. Currently, a referendum asks voters to step into the shoes of the Legislature to consider the proposed law. Voters vote “yes” on the measure to approve the proposal, and “no” to reject it. AB 421 would effectively turn a yes vote into a no vote and a no vote into a yes vote. When former Sen. Bob Hertzberg proposed the same idea, it failed to get out of the Legislature. But even Hertzberg knew that such a proposal would require a constitutional amendment. Here, proponents believe that they can accomplish the same objective with a statute. They are wrong.

AB 421 imposes other rules and requirements that are so burdensome and complicated that they defy description. Combined, all the provisions of AB 421 mean that  voters will never again see another referendum no matter how outrageous the legislative statute.

Since 1911, Californians have possessed powerful tools to control indolent or corrupt politicians. The rights of direct democracy — initiative, referendum, and recall — are enshrined in the California Constitution for reasons that are just as compelling now as they were more than a century ago.

But politicians hate direct democracy and view it as a threat to their political power. These politicians have either forgotten or consciously chosen to ignore the very first sentence of that part of the California Constitution dealing with voting rights: “All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their protection, security, and benefit, and they have the right to alter or reform it when the public good may require.”

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

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