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California Populist Experiment: Ballot Initiatives

Info: 2272 words (9 pages) Law Essay
Published: 7th Aug 2019

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Jurisdiction(s): US Law

The Constitution of California is a document which describes the roles, powers, and rules of functioning in the state’s government. The current California Constitution was ratified on May 7, 1879, sometime after the Sacramento Convention took place (the previous gathering took place in Monterey in 1849). Since its purpose is to define laws, it is only natural that there are different ways to change the Constitution. The three main methods are holding a Convention, Constitutional Amendment by Initiative, and Revision to the Constitution. For the sake of discussion, let us consider the key ideas, facts, and concepts of the Initiative system in the Constitution, and the arguments for and against it. This will lead to an analysis of ballot initiatives in California, both historical and current.

Based upon research, this seems to be a matter of conflict among some people and has its pros and cons. In order to analyze this topic, there needs to be a basic understanding of the background of this whole situation. According to Brooks, United States acquired California from Mexico under the terms and conditions of the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo in 1848. Due to the fact that there was no set of rules to manage the territory, the local leaders and delegates worked together to draft and finalize the first California Constitution. Despite the output, the document was soon seen to be ineffective and inefficient, and eventually in 1879 another Convention was held. There was another issue, such as “The Southern Pacific Railroad [which] was an economic juggernaut, controlling all of California’s passenger and freight rail service and the bulk of the river and ocean transport as well. Moreover, the Southern Pacific held title to 11% of all land in the state” (Brooks 2016). It used this pervasive power to influence legislators to create legislation beneficial to railroad interests, which in turn created hardship for the farmers and business people reliant upon the railroad.

For the most part, it does not seem that the 1879 Constitutional Delegates succeeded in what they were attempting to accomplish within the newfound state. Despite the new changes, the reform movements succeeded in essence neither in changing California state government nor in overcoming the Southern Pacific Railroad. Among other things, Delegates focused on different varieties of issues, and prohibited the Legislature from: Adopting special legislation relating to cities; Imposing taxes upon cities and city residents for local purposes; and Delegating authority over city revenues to private persons” (Burdick, Speers, Whitnell, 2008). 

As the purpose is to focus on the Initiative System, consider its definition and the pros and cons of this method. What this mechanism of influencing change in the government by amending the Constitution means is that it allows electors to suggest or propose legislation and urge legislature to vote on a measure. Through personal knowledge, I can confidently say that there are direct and indirect types of initiatives. As the name suggests, in direct processes, proposals go straight to a ballot. In the case of indirect, the legislature has a choice to take action. The Initiative System in its entirety has faced both criticism and appreciation.

According to NextCA, “Initiatives should be kept as they are. They are an important tool for good government” (“Initiative Process”). This can be supported because although the system is not perfect, it allows people to have a voice in the matter. It also serves as a check on the legislature and spending. Essentially, this was the one pro I could find. There were some con-statements, according to a video on NextCA’s website that reported how people felt about the whole procedure. Professionals and other well-aware citizens explain that it is confusing because there appears to be an immense amount of jargon which easily misdirects average people. There is no way to transparently see who is behind what plans and what ulterior motives there may be. A lot of time is being wasted when first there are votes, and then money is spent, and a lot of times the proposal turns out to be unconstitutional. This leaves no room for the improvements upon errors to be made (“What’s Next California?: The Initiative Process”). It appears that the bad heavily outweighs the good in terms of quantity of con-statements, but at the end of the day, everyone has different opinions. To each his own.

The examination of this component of our Constitution leads to recent as well as current Propositions put forth by the government. One such example to emphasize is Prop. 187 (1994), which addressed the situation of undocumented immigrants. According to University of Michigan authors and their analysis, Prop. 187 (also known as Save Our State) was “a proposal in California to end most social welfare and educational assistance to illegal immigrants,” (Valentino, 2013). For instance, this scholarly piece discusses that advocates of this Proposition pushed to initiate anti-immigrant tactics, such as restricting public benefits to illegal immigrants and “It also requires that teachers, police officers, and welfare workers report any knowledge of illegal immigrants to the Office of Immigration and Naturalization Services for purposes of deportation” (Lee and Ottati, 2002).

Now that it is clear what this means, consider the reactions to this proposal at the time in 1994. This was quite controversial and it turned out to be an instance in time when citizens put their foot in the ground and began to revolt against illegal immigration. It passed with 59 percent of the vote. “In 1994 we re-elected a Republican governor, Republicans controlled the lower house of the state Legislature, the Senate was relatively closely divided and the congressional delegation in the House of Representatives was exactly half Republican and half Democrat” (Shafer, 2014). In detail, White non- Hispanic voters (+28 points), Latinos voted No by a 73% to 27% margin. Blacks and Asians divided about evenly, with 52% voting in favor and 48% opposed. “Several hundred Latino demonstrators–who have loved to hate Harold Ezell since his days as regional immigration commissioner–confronted him before he took the podium. One protester called Ezell, a godfather of 187, “a bigot and a Nazi” (Ramos, 1994). From this information, it can be deduced that this was indeed important and had an incredibly personal effect on different groups of people.

Highly unpopular among the Hispanic population and community, the state of California was forbidden to act upon the Proposition, by a federal district court judge, because it was deemed unconstitutional (“California Proposition 187”). This just proves how much of a waste of time the initiative system can be. For example, as mentioned before in the discussion of pros and cons, California requires no form of review to make sure the ballot initiative is Constitutional or not prior to the commencement of signing. It fails to allow any opportunity to correct errors or revise. There are some critics who agree that there are many special interests which happen to manipulate campaigns as a whole and cause a lot of confusion. To support this, Joe Tayag of the Greenlining Institute suggests that “the lack of flexibility in the initiative process creates a series of problems, including costly initiative battles between special interests” (“Democracy by Initiative”). One can conclude that this method of changing the Constitution is an arduous and often unnecessarily a waste of time. There should be a way to go over to see if the Proposition is Constitutional or not, before people start looking for signatures. The only good thing about this is that people’s voices are not as suppressed, and that they have a right to say what they want, but they can still be easily confused by misdirection. Initiatives were confusing then, and are still confusing now.

This brings the discussion to more current ballot initiatives for the November 2018 election, such as Proposition 7. This authorizes year round Daylight Saving Time in California. Using the knowledge gained from the first and second components above, this Prop does not seem to be unconstitutional. The reason is that it does not violate the California or National Constitution. There are no rights being infringed upon through this suggestion. Although through inductive reasoning it can be assumed that this would affect energy consumption and efficiency at work, there is no research or evidence to convey exactly how much. One would just have to wait and see if the measure gets voted into society. Congress, the President, and the legislature would have to approve.

Consider some historical and more recent background on this topic. “In 1949, California voters approved an initiative measure which established DST in California. The Legislature can only make changes to that initiative measure by submitting those changes to the voters for their approval” (“Proposition 7”). This brings the discussion to a brief evaluation of the pros and cons of this measure. According to Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, some positive factors about this is that citizens will improve their sleep time and health, and that this year-long standard of time would save money. On the other hand, however, there are claims that traffic and schools will be more susceptible to dangerous accidents in the morning due to the extra hour of darkness “(“Proposition 7 (2018)”).

In conclusion, history repeats itself and taking previous ballot initiatives and Constitutional Conventions into account, it is obvious that there will always be advocates and critics of measures. As the nation and state have progressed, the current California Constitution has withstood the test of time and it continues to use the mechanism of the Initiative System. Although it has pros and cons, the bad outweighs the good in terms of efficiency, and clearly based on evidence, it should be improved to allow for revision of errors, just like every other state. The process should not be confusing for voters either. If the government claims to be working to improve and maintain society, it should help and allow people to see what they really want, not what hidden figures and special interest groups may want voters to see. The law making process is put into the hands of people, but if it is easily vulnerable to misunderstanding, it can be abused. It should be easier for those who have less money to get something on the ballot. We have to wait and see what the government does to address these issues in the future.


  • Brooks, Shelley. “Creating California’s Constitution.” CHSSP. June 13, 2016. Accessed October 12, 2018. http://chssp.ucdavis.edu/blog/creating-californias-constitution.
  • Burdick, Kourtney, Joanne Speers, and Patrick Whitnell. “The Origins of California City Powers.” Western City Magazine. January 1, 2008. Accessed October 13, 2018. https://www.westerncity.com/article/origins-california-city-powers.
  • “California Proposition 187, Illegal Aliens Ineligible for Public Benefits (1994).” Ballotpedia. Accessed October 12, 2018. https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_187,_Illegal_Aliens_Ineligible_for_Public_Benefits_(1994).
  • Democracy by Initiative: SHAPING CALIFORNIA’S FOURTH BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT. Center for Governmental Studies (CGS). Accessed October 12, 2018. http://www.ncid.us/wp-content/uploads/files/cgs_dbi_full_book_f.pdf.
  • “Initiative Process.” What’s Next California? Accessed October 12, 2018. nextca.org/topics/entry/initiative-process.
  • “Proposition 7.” Legislative Analyst’s Office. Accessed October 13, 2018. https://lao.ca.gov/BallotAnalysis/Proposition?number=7&year=2018.
  • “Proposition 7 (2018).” Institute of Governmental Studies – UC Berkeley. Accessed October 13, 2018. https://igs.berkeley.edu/library/elections/proposition-7-2018.
  • Ramos, George. “Prop. 187 Debate: No Tolerance but Abundant Anger.” Los Angeles Times. October 10, 1994. Accessed October 12, 2018. http://articles.latimes.com/1994-10-10/local/me-48635_1_illegal-immigration.
  • Shafer, Scott. “Political Effects Linger 20 Years After Prop. 187 Targeted Illegal Immigration.” KQED. November 04, 2014. Accessed October 12, 2018. https://www.kqed.org/news/10346251/political-effects-linger-20-years-after-prop-187-targeted-illegal-immigration.
  • Valentino, Nicholas A., Ted Brader, and Ashley E. Jardina. 2013. “Immigration Opposition Among U.S. Whites: General Ethnocentrism or Media Priming of Attitudes About Latinos?” Political Psychology 34 (2): 149–66. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2012.00928.x.
  • “What’s Next California?: The Initiative Process.” NextCA.org. 2011. Accessed October 12, 2018. http://www.nextca.org/videos/entry/3494.
  • Yueh-Ting Lee, and Victor Ottati. 2002. “Attitudes Toward U.S. Immigration Policy: The Roles of In-Group-Out-Group Bias, Economic Concern, and Obedience to Law.” Journal of Social Psychology 142 (5): 617–34. http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=7217290&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

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