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Friday, April 22, 2011

Has Direct Democracy Ruined California?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 22, 2011 at 2:57 PM

click to enlarge The people's will
  • The people's will

The Economist seems to think so.

The venerable newsweekly this week contains a special report, "The People's Will," on the woes of the Golden State. West Coast correspondent Andreas Kluth makes the case that California's expansive system of direct democracy -- and in particular the initiative process -- has, more than any other factor, contributed to the state's fiscal and political problems. Kluth will be making two appearances in San Francisco next week to discuss the report at public events.

The entire article is worth reading, from Kluth's examination of the origins of ballot-box legislation (our state's system was basically imported from Switzerland) to the familiar but stark tale of how Proposition 13 permanently distorted state finances. We found one of the most interesting parts to be a section dealing with how well-informed California voters are.

In a state where so many far-reaching policies are set as a result of participatory democracy, the knowledge level of voters is important. Kluth cites this statement of James Madison: "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both."

Farce. Tragedy. Sound familiar?

The findings in this area are fascinating. A Field Poll showed, for instance, that only one in three state residents actually understands what Prop. 13 does. Before you scoff, well-informed Snitch readers, see if you can answer correctly yourself. The question: Whether the tax-cap measure applies "only to residential property taxes, only to commercial property taxes, or both."*

Even more interesting is research by Kimberley Nalder, a professor at CSU Sacramento, demonstrating that factors that would appear to contribute to more informed voting -- such as age, education level, and home ownership -- in fact correlate with a worse understanding of initiatives. As Kluth writes, "The longer that people live in California, it seems, the more likely they are to be misinformed, and possibly brainwashed into ignorance."

Kluth will be appearing from 6 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, at the World Affairs Council, and from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 28, at the City Club of San Francisco.

*Correct answer: Both.

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Peter Jamison


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